Survival thriller "Beast" is a diverting pulse-raiser
Starring Idris Elba, Iyana Halley, Leah Jeffries and Sharlto Copley. Written by Ryan Engle, based on a story by Jaime Primak Sullivan. Directed by Baltasar Kormákur. Now playing in theatres everywhere. 93 minutes. 14A
⭐⭐½ (out of 4)
The cinema trope known as Chekhov’s gun, which refers to an object foreshadowing plot turns, gets an update in “Beast,” the new survival thriller directed by Iceland’s Baltasar Kormákur.
Call it “Chekov’s T-shirt.” It’s the “Jurassic Park” tee worn by one of the offspring of Dr. Nate Samuels (Idris Elba), a recently widowed father taking his teenage daughters on what’s supposed to be a healing family trip to a South African game reserve. They haven’t reckoned on becoming prey for a giant lion experiencing its own version of grief.
The “Jurassic Park” tee has the virtue of honesty. Kormákur (“Everest,” “The Deep”) is tacitly admitting to the many steals he and screenwriter Ryan Engle (“Rampage”) make from Steven Spielberg’s 1993 dinosaur blockbuster, lifting everything from the stranded vehicle to the kitchen hide-and-seek.
Which is not to say that “Beast” is undeserving of eyeballs. On the contrary, this last big Hollywood release of summer ’22 is a diverting pulse-raiser, which has the additional virtue of clocking in at a brisk 93 minutes. Kormákur harbours no pretensions to art with his big-screen adventures; maximizing tension is always his intention.
And he gets right down to it with a prologue that shows an all-too-believable scene where poachers ruthlessly attack a pride of lions, using guns and snares to kill these majestic creatures as quickly and efficiently as possible. They manage to miss the pride’s alpha male, which commences a bloody campaign against humans that we would anthropomorphize as revenge.
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Enter Dr. Nate and his moody daughters, Meredith (Iyana Halley) and Norah (Leah Jeffries), who aren’t exactly delighted to be joining their dad on this journey to a South African savannah. There’s no cellphone service or — omigod! — Wi-Fi.
They’re visiting a game reserve managed by Martin Battles (Sharlto Copley), a wildlife biologist and longtime family friend. It’s the place where Nate met his late wife; photos of her still hang on the wall.
The depth of human grieving is learned on the fly. It unfolds as Nate, Martin, Meredith and Norah find themselves fighting off the aforementioned alpha male lion. The beast is intent on making all of them dinner; he’s as ferocious as the T-Rex and as resourceful as the raptors from “Jurassic Park.”
No prizes for guessing what happens next or where the story goes. But it’s worth noting that Elba, no stranger to heroic roles, rises above genre formula by playing Nate as more of a regular dad than a superman.
He’s fearless in the face of danger, and he’s a calm and capable battlefield medic and scrapper. But he’s not exactly handy with a gun and he’s hopeless at hot-wiring cars, something his daughters chide him for at one moment of truth.
The daughters are more than just plot contrivances. They’re in on the action. Actors Halley (TV’s “This Is Us”) and Jeffries (TV’s “Empire” and “Rei”) demonstrate excellent chemistry both as squabbling siblings and determined survivalists.
It’s also great to see South African native Copley (“District 9,” “Chappie”) in action again. His knowledge of his homeland comes through in his performance, although you might expect his character Martin — who knows lions well enough to hug them — would understand that the avenging lion hasn’t “gone rogue,” to use his words. The lion is essentially doing what lions do, although apparently more aggressively than most.
And what about that lion, which is somewhat lacking in personality apart from its very big teeth and claws? As CGI creations go, he’s far beneath the “Jurassic” dinos of Spielberg renown, but far above the lamentably fake bear of “Prey,” the other current survival thriller, now playing on Disney Plus (although it should be on the big screen, too).
Kormákur is smart to depict the lion attacks mostly in the shadows, which minimizes any fears of digital seams showing.
He also makes frequent and effective use of tracking shots, which heightens the sensation of being stalked that helps make “Beast” a late-summer audience rouser. 🌓
(Originally published in the Toronto Star.)