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Baltasar Kormakur's 'Beast' Too Sympathetic to the Lion

Idris Elba as NATE in BEAST

Beast wants to be many things. As an action-packed survival story set in South Africa, Beast effectively ratchets up the tension and makes viewers feel the hair-raising terror of being hunted by a lion as prey. But the movie also aspires to be a family drama that depicts a father trying to reclaim his "pride," as well as a statement piece against animal poaching. All of these threads muddle the message, resulting in a confusing moviegoing experience. Directed by Baltasar Kormákur (AdriftEverest), with screenplay by Ryan Engle and story concept by Jaime Primak Sullivan, Beast does best when it sticks with Sullivan's original concept of "Cujo with a lion."

Still grieving from the death of his estranged wife, Dr. Nate Samuels (Idris Elba) travels with his teenage daughters to South Africa, hoping they can regroup and begin to heal as a family. Ever since their parents separated, both Mare (Iyana Halley; The Hate U Give) and Norah (Leah Jeffries) have mixed feelings towards their father, and their trust is further shattered after their mother's death. Martin (Sharlto Copley; District Nine), friend of the family, greets them at the Mopani Game Reserve, ready to serve as host and tour guide. But what starts as a relaxing safari with photo opportunities becomes lethal when they encounter a rogue lion whose pride has been slaughtered by poachers. Determined to protect his daughters, Nate has the fight of his life if he and his family are to survive.

A Black man trapped in a vehicle with a white man and a Black girl
[L-R]: Idris Elba as NATE, Sharlto Copley as MARTIN, Iyana Halley as MARE in BEAST

Beast suffers from an identity disorder and carries the bare bones of two potentially great movies. I'm down for Idris Elba facing off with a lion, and director of photography Philippe Rousselot (A River Runs Through It, Big Fish) certainly nails the cinematography throughout. Not only does the South African landscape pop in his hands, but the expert use of camera angles grants a terrifying experience. The threat of the lion is always slightly outside the camera's scope, hinted at by only sounds and occasional visual cues. The camera acts as a literal head trying to locate the predator, leaving viewers feeling hunted alongside the family. We are trapped inside close quarters, just like Nate, Martin, and the girls. The camera also chooses depth of perception that allows viewers to feel close to the menace.

But the potential grittiness that could push Beast into a firm B-movie "surviving the wild animal" type movie is weighed down by the family drama and clunky script. Case in point, a lion smashes through the glass window of the vehicle inside which the family is trapped. Norah says, "Dad, that lion really smashed through that window." Such on-the-nose statements break any tension built up. In addition, there are too many instances of idiotic verbal cues, like "You wait here. I'll be right back." Next thing you know, an additional character repeats the same line to the next Joe Schmo or cries out: "No, Dad, don't leave." Having the girls rebel against their father's instruction makes sense to an extent, since the movie has set up the conflict that the father needs to re-earn their trust. Also in thrillers, characters need to make unwise decisions so they can be put in additional danger. But when done to this extreme, my patience wears thin. This overindulgence of conflict takes away from what we want more of, which is scary lions.

A Black man tries to help his hurt daughter while other daughter looks on
[L-R]: Leah Jeffries as NORAH, Iyana Halley as MARE, Idris Elba as NATE in BEAST
Beast also contains an intriguing anti-poaching story that could easily have been made into a documentary or issue-driven narrative feature. Kormákur's ample experience directing survival tales like Everest and Adrift would have easily transferred into either path. The problem Beast set up for itself is creating a scenario that has audiences feeling sorry for the stray lion. In the first scene, poachers arrive and mercilessly slaughter the lion's family. To then make the lion the main antagonist of the movie sends a confusing message. In another better version of the movie, the family teams up with the lion to wreak vengeance on those poachers. Or perhaps in a documentary, the film could have followed the lion in his own survival tale and end with a call to action. Jaws didn't begin with a sad scene of cruelty against sharks. That would have been a whole other picture. Sure, we are rooting for the family, but the lion has our sympathies, too. The market for environmentally friendly movies exists, but maybe it shouldn't exist in tandem with a man vs. animal thriller.

Beast will serve the market of parents looking for movies they can watch with their older kids and teens. The film contains a positive portrayal of a Black family in crisis learning to survive as a unit. Themes of fatherhood and Nate's desire to prove himself to his girls tie in nicely with the portrayal of lions protecting their territory. And the many genuinely frightening moments will keep viewers arrested through the runtime. If you don't have kids, save it for a rental.

Release info: In theaters August 19, 2022

Final score: 2 out of 5