Investigate, isolate, determine a course of action, and cure. These are tenets upon which medical science treats patients. Being in survival mode for these past three years (we’re still in its throes if we’re honest with ourselves), our fight or flight reaction, that adrenaline has kept us on edge. Frankly, we’re tired; we aim to be independent again. Thanks to the pandemic, we haven’t had a lot of movies where the story succinctly demonstrates these ideologies. Baltasar Kormákur’s “Beast” is perfectly timed if an ill-conceived attempt at depicting that fight or flight reaction on the South African savannah as a family fight for its survival against a lion.
“Beast,” first and foremost, reflects its themes of survival in a nuanced way. Ryan Engle’s script is based on Jaime Primak Sullivan’s story. The story defines three weak yet independent characters paired with solid performances creating a tiring spectacle.
Idris Elba stars as Dr. Nate Samuels, a recently widowed man on a trip with his daughters, Meredith or Mare, as she’s known by her nickname (Iyana Halley) and Norah (Leah Sava Jeffries), to Mopane in remote South Africa. Engle’s script paints Nate as someone who is learning to survive being a single parent, to balance life with, ironically, life. Mare and Norah are very well-educated, but in the world’s ways, they are not as bright as they think. Like their dad, though, they are resourceful. However, they lack one resource at the beginning of the film that they most desperately need: each other.
Like the film’s antagonists, the three characters feel threatened and are bent on tearing each other to shreds, especially Meredith and Norah, whose attachment to their mom is obvious. Halley and Sava Jeffries are overtly strong performers for the roles as they came off the page, yet the characters became annoying by the end of the second act because of one lacking resource. Elba is a very independent man in general, especially Nate. The character has been so busy saving lives that he instinctually knows how to protect his daughters but doesn’t have the common sense to immediately do so; the audience’s fight or flight response kicks in from the opening frame. However, our cast is a little bit slower on the uptake.
They are not entirely isolated: there’s a lion’s den, which happens to be threatened by poachers. You can guess the rest of the plot. Though I went into the film cold, Engle’s script writes itself, leading to the first of many issues with “Beast.” The film does not pretend to be Stephen Hopkins’ 1996 “The Ghost and the Darkness.” Instead, it uses the established survival motif to paint the characters in their predicament, predicated on a threatened lion and is paper thin.
Kormákur has made his career out of survivalist films, namely Universal’s “Everest.” “Beast” is a change for him in terms of the cast – there is an intimacy within the family of three, plus their uncle, Martin (Sharlto Copley), who has a deep friendship with Nate. In the opening scene, we see the family dynamic play out. Philippe Rousselot’s camera chases each character as they begin to realize just how isolated they are from civilization. Their lack of faith in each other shows how disconnected Meredith and Norah are from their worlds.
Rousselot’s camera captures the incredible spectacle of the savannah, the hot sun beating you mercilessly, or the near-pitch black darkness that falls over the landscape at night. His camera also captures the violently ravaged victims’ remains of the lion’s attacks.
Because the plot does not move from its overtly simple premise, “Beast” relies on its technical prowess to drive the film. For an emotionally dialog-heavy script, Kormákur has trouble balancing the two. In the film’s favor, the lions look realistically threatening. Like “Jurassic Park” or the latest “Jurassic World: Dominion” earlier this summer, the fear is palpable; both aspects are successful drivers of “Beast.”
The editing and sound mixing is another unique beast. They introduce some oddities that, had the film been exhibited in Dolby Atmos, it might have made for a different experience. Suffice it to say, sounds pan around the characters as events happen off-camera that you can hear, but they aren’t necessarily benefitting what we see on the screen.
Elba finally comes into his own, demonstrating his prowess in the projected confrontation. The confrontation is exciting, yet it is over just as quick as it comes on.
“Beast” grips you and immerses you in its fight or flight reaction, which the audience was clearly enjoying. The thin plot lets the audience go too soon, creating an imbalance of solid characters and, more substantial if ill-defined, technology choices with nowhere to go. Strong performances can only carry a film so far. When the characters are weakly defined, we tire quickly of watching a family try to survive when they are independent and strongly opinionated.