No but it’s pretty great.
Directed by Baltasar Kormákur
Beast is a survival movie, a cat and mouse movie. It’s a B-movie, in other words, with modest ambition and thrills that aren’t quite as cheap as you might initially expect them to be.
It’s a story about a doctor (Idris Elba) and his two teenaged daughters. They have come to Africa to visit the village where the girls’ mother grew up. She passed away from cancer in the year or two before the movie takes place, and we quickly learn that Idris and her split up shortly before she got sick. The girls, at least the eldest, Meredith, holds Idris accountable for abandoning them while their mother was sick.
This is all set-up to explain Idris’ guilt that he, a doctor, didn’t notice his wife’s disease, and that he didn’t, and couldn’t, do anything about it.
But that’s not why you’re watching the movie. You’re watching it for the pissed off Simba.
Because of the incessant poaching, this PO’d lion hunts them for sport. It’s just another heavy-handed symbol of Death, after them, tormenting them, and this time Idris can do something about it.
So that’s what this movie is about, but why it works has to do with how it’s done. The movie is shot almost entirely in long, wide angle takes, similar to Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity (2013). We are often stuck in the same liminal spaces as the main characters, experiencing their terror and exhaustion. We’re with them as they undergo a series of tests, almost like a video game: We have to get to point B… we need to get the radio working… we need to save Sharlto Copley, etc.
There’s a little Jurassic Park mixed in (noted in an early visual reference), some Gravity, a little Far Cry 2, and of course the lion v. man battle pulls from the bear v. Leo battle in The Revenant.
Maybe it helps to have someone like Idris Elba in this, an actor with serious gravity who can hold down the fort when the film risks floating off into incredulity. But it just never does. It’s a surprisingly grounded film, perhaps because it’s grounded in it’s own surreality.
The wide angles, the long takes, it all serves to heighten the film, not make it overly realistic. The camera is almost constantly moving, so are the characters and so are the sets. They’re most often in a beaten down truck (think again of Jurassic Park) with this lion trying to break through the glass, pawing at them through unfortunately open windows.
And all that time in the truck again calls to mind the cramped spaces in Gravity, with the camera’s continuous movement all the more unbelievable.
The challenge with a movie like this is how do you sustain tension for 90 minutes? In this case, and with most survival movies, it requires breaking down “survival” into a series of tasks, one after the other.
There are four main characters, and you sort of know how they will serve the story: Idris is the protagonist, marked by guilt and his desire to rebuild his relationship with his daughters (which he will through brute force).
His daughters are there mostly to be saved, as well as to occasionally get separated from Idris so that the action is split between two locations. They do, however, have their own agency, but from the very beginning (and from the movie poster) this is set up as Idris v. Lion.
Sharlto Copley plays a family friend and all around lion/hunting expert. He’s the character you want on your side in a situation like this, so of course he won’t be around for too long. You need to lose him or at least subdue him for the movie to be as tense and horrific as it tends to be. In this case he ventures out looking for the lion, is badly wounded, then spends the rest of his screen time as something of a liability. Eventually he dies heroically, giving the three main characters just enough space to make their getaway.
There are also the gang of poachers. They serve to piss off the lion (in the cold open they kill its entire pride) and then show up later as a possible form of escape (think the cop in Misery) only to be subdued aka ravaged by the lion. In a weird sense, this is a crowd pleasing moment of the film. And I think a lot of movies about ‘beasts’ do this type of thing. The ‘beast’ is there to be awe-inspiring and horrific, at the same time. So we are never meant to hate this creature, just to fear it. And we are made to understand why it is the way it is… because it just is.
Whether it’s an all-consuming storm, or dinosaurs, or sharks or bears or lions, these characters are all just symbols of the vast power of nature. We are subsumed by it, powerless to stop it once certain frameworks break down.
And so this symbol of nature is terrifying but it also has a moment where we are on its side. We want to see the lion take down the poachers, which it does, and then it’s right back to us being terrified again.
It’s sort of like the movie reminds us to stay humble. You’re allowed to survive if you acknowledge your powerlessness. Then you have characters who spit in the face of humility. Whether because they have big guns or a big boat, they think they can control that which cannot be controlled. And then we see them pay the price for it.
So this movie, as with most survival movies, intends to frighten and inspire you. Also it just makes for a good Friday night movie.