Lions and poachers and snares, oh my god! In the satisfyingly gruesome survival thriller “Beast,” Idris Elba plays a grieving widower who drags his two teenage daughters to a South African game reserve and embarks on an emotional journey that turns into a nightmarish battle with Mother Nature. Jean-Luc Godard famously said that all it takes to make a movie is a girl and a gun; This one has two girls and several guns, although one of them only fires not-so-effective tranquilizer darts. The true weapon of the film is a very big, very angry, cleverly computer-generated king of the jungle who turns out to have a big bone to crack (or crush) with humanity.
The animus is more than justified given the ruinous state of the world in general and the ruthless poachers who have been hunting these lions in particular. Some of these poachers get a deservedly bad ending in the prologue, a tense nocturnal set piece that establishes the stakes between man and nature and, no less importantly, a consistent, coherent visual scheme. Most of the mayhem in “Beast” is staged in long, snake-like tracking shots that keep pace with the characters as they attempt to spot, avoid, and flee a predator that may always be just a few lunges away. As his camera roams the rugged terrain in precisely choreographed movements, director Baltasar Kormákur (in collaboration with cinematographer Philippe Rousselot) achieves a physical grounding that makes even a digitally constructed predator appear palpably real.
That down-to-earthness also anchors the predictably cheesy, if refreshingly straightforward, narrative introductions laid out in Ryan Engle’s screenplay (based on a story by Jaime Primak Sullivan). Nate Samuels (Elba) is a doctor and you can bet he’ll come in handy. He and his daughters – moody, photography-loving Mare (Iyana Halley) and spunky Norah (Leah Jeffries) – visit South Africa, the homeland of their recently deceased wife and mother. (The film was shot on location in the country’s Northern Cape province.) They are on a healing journey, or at least that’s the idea; Family conflicts keep creeping in, much of it rooted in Nate’s specific failures as a husband and father.
To lighten the mood, Nate’s longtime friend Martin (the priceless Sharlto Copley from “District 9”) helps. Combined game warden and wildlife whisperer, Martin is on hand to play safari guide, muttering menacing warnings about ‘the law of the jungle’ while demonstrating first-hand just how harmless and cuddly the local prides of lions are. You can’t blame them for the graphically shredded human corpses that suddenly appear in a nearby village. That would be the work of a much larger, meaner lion, who soon roars into the frame, trapping the group deep in the South African bush with only a stuck jeep for shelter. Looking a bit like Aslan of the Dead or maybe Scar from The Lion King after a cocktail of steroids and bath salts, this dark-maned beast has a particularly monstrous, almost mutant quality.
That sounds ridiculous, but it turns out to be just the right amount of ridiculousness for this smart, stripped-down late-summer distraction. Kormákur has been working toward this B-movie sweet spot for a while. In a career that has zigzagged between his native Iceland and Hollywood, he has become a dependable disaster performer, capsizing a boat in The Deep, stranding two lovers at sea in Adrift and Everest” follows mountaineers on a snowy death march. The human body at extremis is its comfort zone, and here, with falling paws, snapping jaws, and discreetly bleeding wounds, it endures – and, crucially, modulates – the threat of grievous bodily harm.
It helps that the central foursome, especially Halley and Jeffries, are as personable as they are, which helps to soften and even sell the absurdity of those moments when you’ll yell, “Stay in the car you idiot!” and “Roll up the [your choice of expletive] Window!” Elba, a reliably polite man of action, deftly downplays here as a bumbling father who, apart from his muscular stature and medical expertise, is no physical match for Pridezilla. That remains true, even when things come to an inevitable hand -a-mane-climax, a ridiculous if entertaining reminder that just because you’ve seen a killer CGI lion doesn’t mean you’ve seen him mangle.
Valuation: R, for violent content, gory images and some language
Duration: 1 hour, 33 minutes
To play: Begins August 19 in general release
https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/movies/story/2022-08-18/beast-review-idris-elba-lion ‘Beast’ review: Idris Elba stars in grisly survival thriller