By Michael O’Sullivan
The marauding-animal thriller is a horror staple, reliably cropping up mid year, as evidenced by “Piranha” (August 3, 1978), “Cujo” (August 12, 1983), “Arachnophobia” (July 18, 1990), “Burning Bright” (August 17, 2010), “The Meg” (August 10, 2018) and a host of other fauna-centric titles before, since and in between, representing a virtual Noah’s ark of scare-inducing species.
In that lineage falls “Beast”, the latest entry in the dog days canon of cautionary tales pitting man against Mother Nature’s less well-behaved progeny.
If the film is elevated by the great Idris Elba – playing an American widower on safari in South Africa with his two daughters who must face down a rogue lion bent on, for lack of a better word, revenge – it nevertheless falls squarely in the camp of formula.
Meaning that “Beast” obeys certain rules, and does so effectively yet predictably under the stewardship of director Baltasar Kormakur, a film-maker who, since making his name in Iceland, has staked out a patch of the Hollywood turf reserved for such mindless if visceral thrillers as “Adrift” and “Everest”.
“Beast” is a legitimately scary movie, opening with a prologue in which we watch a group of poachers massacre several lions, then get massacred themselves, one by one, by the film’s titular critter: a convincing CGI cat that then goes on a human-killing rampage, not eating his prey – random villagers, surviving poachers – as an ordinary lion might, but stalking and killing them out of some anthropomorphic sense of justice.
Into that unlikely scenario wanders Elba’s Nate and daughters Meredith and Norah (Iyana Halley and Leah Jeffries), who are on a mission of reconciliation after their African-born mother has died while estranged from Nate, leaving the film’s hero with some healing to do.
It’s not just reconciliation he seeks, but redemption for being absent from his family during their time of need. And as everyone knows, redemption, at least in Hollywood, requires sacrifice.
All this falls into place, like a morality play, against a scenic backdrop, with solid performances rendered by the aforementioned actors and Sharlto Copley, who plays an old friend of the family and their tour guide to the wildlife preserve in which the action takes place.
And action-packed it is, even if much of the story unspools inside a disabled Land Rover containing the main characters, with said lion on the warpath outside and not much in the human arsenal except a tranquilliser gun, a few bottles of water, hand-held radios, a medical kit and their wits.
The jump scares are genuinely jumpy, but the film plays out more like a theme park ride than a family drama with teeth.
It’s pulse-pounding, in other words, from a cardiac perspective, but not especially engaging as a narrative, despite the earnest efforts of the cast to breathe life into a personal story arc that feels pasted on to another one: one that is, in essence, the tale of a dumb but deeply disagreeable beast.