The subgenre of animal horror has featured sharks, tarantulas, alligators, and even dinosaurs, but not since Scar dug his claws into Mufasa have lions been as scary as the one hunting humans in the new Idris Elba movie Beast, which hails from Icelandic director Baltasar Kormakur and roars into theaters this weekend courtesy of Universal Pictures.
Beast opens by paying homage Steven Spielberg‘s Jaws, giving us just a glimpse of the titular creature while showing the deadly damage he can do when he feels threatened. The sequence offers a motive of sorts for the killer lion, which has a seemingly endless thirst for blood — especially the blood of poachers, who go from cat food to kitty litter in the blink of an eye.
We quickly meet Elba’s protagonist, Dr. Nate Samuels, a do-gooder physician who’s on vacation in Africa with his teenage daughters Norah and Meredith (likable newcomers Iyana Halley and Leah Sava Jeffries). Actually, they are on an ancestry tour of sorts, visiting the remote village where their recently-deceased mother grew up on their way to an exciting safari. They soon link up with “uncle” Martin (Sharlto Copley), a local animal lover who explores the Serengeti and serves as a tour guide — both of the land and of the girls’ mother’s past.
While the film offers several effective jump scares that will likely satisfy audiences who brave theaters for this one, the film overall is merely average — brilliantly scary in the moments when Elba and Phillipe Rousselot’s cinematography take charge, and painfully bad when Ryan Engle’s predictable, nauseatingly sentimental script takes over.
I give him credit for writing a horror movie about the King of the Jungle in the first place, but his predictable and rather benign script begins to grate on you like a lion’s nails on a chalkboard — especially Nate’s overwrought emotional clashes with his daughters over previous family drama. You’ll wish a lion had come along and pawed the script’s pages with a stronger editing pen.
If the amateur screenplay wasn’t enough to send you running, some of the utterly implausible and even laughable action sequences will surely do the trick, as you’ll go from suspending your disbelief to suspending your interest. Fortunately, Beast features a mercifully short 90-minute runtime, and the bad parts described above only account for maybe 20 (critical) minutes altogether.
Despite the script’s considerable flaws, it would be dishonest to call Beast a bad movie. It is not. When it is good, it is very good. This critic struggles to remember the last time he let out a sustained scream and nearly flew out of his seat during a screening. Meanwhile, Elba and the two young actresses he volleys with create instantly likable characters, and not only does their initial situation seem entirely plausible (it grows less so as the film goes on), but the intensity of their violent encounters with the beast comes across both dangerous and disturbing.
Kudos to Beast Editor Jay Rabinowitz for stitching together several quiet, slower scenes next to rapid-fire ones. Double kudos, really, to Rousselot’s camerawork, which focuses not only on the beautiful landscape of the savannah, but also keeps the extended night sequence in sharp focus, and typically frames a character in peril from his or her back and then does not move the shot when they turn, making it feel as though danger is always lurking on the outskirts of the frame. That trick, alone, keeps the tension up considerably without Kormakur having to resort to more than one or two cheap shots to scare you. Nearly all of them are real, and the lion, rendered by state-of-the-art CGI, is the most realistic-looking maned predator this side of the live-action Lion King movie.
It’s too bad that a studio that devoted at least some resources to filming Beast on location, attracting a superstar, and creating a terrifying creature, did not pay someone else to write a slightly less frustrating script or at least one that was a bit more convincing script. Had they done so, the studio might have had the sleeper hit of the summer on their hands. Instead, the sum of Beast‘s parts add up to just enough, so even though this movie won’t be crowned the King of the Jungle anytime soon, it’s not Serengeti roadkill, either.
Universal Pictures will release Beast in U.S. theaters on Friday, August 19, with previews starting Thursday night.