In Beast, one character briefly wears a Jurassic Park T-shirt. Sure enough, this film about a family on a safari-gone-wrong starts with ooohs and aaahs, and sure enough, later there’s running and screaming. It’s a neat wink-and-a-nod to the audience of the kind of movie to expect — but if anything, the Spielberg film it most closely resembles is Jaws: replace the shark with a vengeful lion, ditch Quint, and you’re not far off.
Putting in the kind of gruffly amiable performance that has become his speciality, Idris Elba plays the good-hearted but emotionally troubled Chief Brody-type, a widower who worries for his two emotionally distant teenage children. A trip to the South African homeland of his late estranged wife, he hopes, will bridge the gap between them. Sharlto Copley is the Hooper-esque game warden who takes them on a private tour of the reserve.
Kormákur and cinematographer Philippe Rousselot make effective use of a series of ‘oners’, ambitious unbroken takes with the camera right up in everyone’s grill
Naturally, things don’t go according to plan, and when poachers attack one pride of lions, a male seeks bloody revenge. As carefully over-explained in expository dialogue, female lions are the hunters; male lions are only there to protect the pride. It’s a nice, lean genre set-up: a “rogue lion”, as Copley’s character puts it, out for vengeance, and in a loose parallel, Elba’s father character looking to protect his own clan.
But — much like in Jaws — disaster specialist Baltasar Kormákur (Everest, Adrift) is relatively sparing with his apex predator. Impressively rendered via CGI — think the Lion King remake, with less dead-eyed singing — the lion attacks happen off-screen as much as they do on-screen, a phantom menace stalking the bushlands. For each of their set-pieces, Kormákur and cinematographer Philippe Rousselot make effective use of a series of ‘oners’, ambitious unbroken takes with the camera right up in everyone’s grill, which lends the action a nice tension and theatricality.
The plot sails along pretty much exactly as you might expect, with few surprises and a final showdown that is occasionally quite silly — yes, as promised in the trailer, Idris Elba really does straight-up punch a lion in the face — but as far as trashy blockbuster entertainment goes, this is uncomplicatedly fun and, at 93 minutes, doesn’t hang around longer than needed. As Quint might have put it: “This lion... swallow you whole.”