Even though animals on Earth have been counted and studied exhaustively, the sheer number of them — around 1-2 million different species — makes many of them unknowable. Perhaps that’s why many movies have felt comfortable making them into monsters, as fear about the unknown — especially something that has sharp teeth and claws — is one of the most potent fears there is.
The new movie Beast takes a slightly less demonizing approach to the genre, attempting to ascribe some kind of reason behind its titular animal’s motives. The film centers on Dr. Nate Samuels (Idris Elba) and his two daughters, Meredith (Iyana Halley) and Norah (Leah Jeffries), who have traveled to South Africa in the wake of the death of Nate’s ex-wife/the kids’ mother. There, they meet old friend Martin Battles (Sharlto Copley), who — among other things — tries to protect the local lion population from poachers.
While Martin is showing the family around the countryside, they discover evidence of a lion attacking humans at will. They soon run into that lion and, after a few unfortunate turns, become trapped in their vehicle as it stalks them relentlessly. They must fight for survival amid its constant attacks and hopefully find some way out of the seemingly insurmountable situation.
Directed by Baltasar Kormákur and written by Ryan Engle, the film does a decent job in the action/thriller part of it, keeping things intense by never knowing how and when the lion will attack next. The main lion and other animals seen in the film appear to be computer-generated, but the up-close manner of the scenes rarely reveals any faults in the look of the creatures.
The story theorizes that, after seeing its entire pride decimated by poachers, the central lion decides that any human it encounters is a threat that must be eliminated. While that works well enough as an explanation for the lion’s behavior, the filmmakers struggle to ascribe any logic to the conduct of the humans. Time after time, especially in the case of Meredith, they decide to put themselves in unnecessary danger, a sure sign that Engle is trying to manufacture drama instead of creating it more naturally.
The strange decision-making is not done any favors by the inane dialogue. While the two young actors give good performances for the most part, they’re saddled with just plain bad lines that make it seem like their characters are devoid of any common sense. The filmmakers try to give the story an emotional through line with the absence of the wife/mother, but they fail to dig deep on the strained relationship between Nate and his kids.
Elba has a natural presence that makes him watchable no matter what, but even he is undone by the poor writing. Copley, who broke out in 2009’s District 9, is the obvious choice as the South African guide and he makes for solid support. Halley and Jeffries should each have a bright acting future, but they’re hamstrung by the script.
In the annals of man vs. animal films, Beast winds up ranking low. It gets points for at least an attempt to empathize with the lion’s “point of view,” but the tension is undercut by the downright strange reactions each of the characters has to their dire situation.
Beast opens in theaters on August 19.