As I’ve said before, we critics often have a bad habit of wanting to prove we are smarter than the films we write about. Creature features in particular offer up soft targets for writers looking to add a cheap trophy to their mantelpiece. The reviews generally write themselves: the film was tame, it received a critical mauling, it lacked bite, it was far from a roaring success, etc. But once in a while, there comes a film which exposes the hacks among us for simply writing about the stupidity we’d hoped to expose. Against all the odds, Beast is one such film.
The animals-running-amok sub-section of creature features has fallen out of favour with Hollywood since the turn of the century. Partially that may be because audiences have become increasingly aware of how badly studios treat non-human co-stars (see: the horrific fate of Clyde, post-Every Which Way But Loose), and partially because the more humane CGI alternatives are both expensive and unconvincing.
Straight off the bat, however, it needs to be noted that the creature effects in Beast – an independent Iceland-US co-production from RVK Studios and Will Packer Productions, picked up by Universal for distribution – are often genuinely impressive. Admittedly in wider shots, when we see lions for longer periods, they don’t quite have the weight that a real animal would have, but in the eerie moments where they are skulking in the periphery, or slamming into our characters at close quarters, viewers will not have any trouble suspending their disbelief. I only saw this in 2D, and I still spent most of the film kicking away lion-attacks in my (thankfully deserted 9:30 am) cinema screening.
It is here I have to take issue with one particular critic, who very clearly went into this film determined to hate it performatively. Many more writers knew what it was they were going to see, and came away with ‘surprisingly positive’ opinions of an enjoyable, if unambitious, film. In her review for the New York Times, however, Manohla Dargis was infuriated at the “unimaginative hack work” of a film she decried as “more bore than roar”. Exactly what she was expecting from this film is anyone’s guess, though she seems most disappointed that it was not simply a ‘so bad it’s good’ outing she could wittily eviscerate – stating it is “no Gods of Egypt” – though on the basis of her predictable wordplay from this review, I suspect it might be “bland dreck”, as Dargis would have it.
Say what you will about Beast – it is a long way from being dull. And simply using that term as a club to beat it with shows a fantastic lack of imagination. Not every film needs to be Kurosawa. You can, and should, occasionally make films with a primary goal of thrilling your viewers. For all the film-school babble about the underlying meanings of the film, Jaws is a film about a shark eating people. It has a stripped back script to allow for longer scenes in which sharks stalk swimmers, while the interim scenes blend in elements of relatable real-life to help invest us in some of its potential victims – in service of ratcheting up the tension. You might make a similar argument for The Birds. Beast does not reach those heights, certainly, but it’s not hard to feel had Spielberg or Hitchcock made their films today, someone out there might have been determined enough to brand them “hacks” that they would ignore the virtues of their work.
Director Baltasar Kormákur certainly owes a lot to Spielberg in particular. Something of an anachronism, the Icelandic director seems to specialise in 90s-style spectacle cinema. His other big success was Everest – a film in the proud pre-Millennium tradition of name-actors climbing something big, and then almost falling off it for 90 minutes – and Beast feels like something else from the time-capsule he dug up on that occasion. Extracting every drop of tension out of a stripped back scenario seems to be in his blood though – collaborating well with cinematographer Philippe Rousselot to constantly construct images which leave us begging the cast to look over their shoulder once in a while, or to shut the damn door!
Also worthy of some praise here is script-writer Ryan Engle – which is a surprise considering previous credits include Rampage and The Commuter. While he doesn’t pull up any trees here, his writing does demonstrate someone who knows how to balance frenetic action scenes solidly with quieter character moments. This seems to have been enough (presumably alongside a big bag of money) to attract Idris Elba to star in the project.
Elba’s presence has become a minor red flag in recent years; not because he is a bad actor, but because he features in far fewer hits than misses. For every Beasts of No Nation there are several more outings in the likes of Mandela or Cats. Beast very kindly presents him with an opportunity for closure on both those fronts; returning him to South Africa (a place his character, Dr Nate Samuels, knowingly tells us he had visited “in another life”) in order to kick the largest feline available, in the head, repeatedly.
While Elba’s American accent waxes and wanes – taking on elements of Bob Hoskins in Who Framed Roger Rabbit in moments of particular stress – in the end, his performance is the foundation that the filmmakers build their piece around. Not just because it takes someone in his physical condition to grapple with a lion believably, but because he is underestimated in quieter, more understated moments. This is helped by the ineffable charm of South African indy-darling Sharlto Copley (playing Martin, an old friend who now safeguards the nature reserve the film takes place in), who he bares his soul to regarding the death of his estranged wife and the growing wedge it has driven between him and his teenage daughters.
Iyana Halley as oldest daughter Mere, and Leah Sava Jeffries as the younger Norah both put in solid performances too. Both have been impacted by their father’s perceived withdrawal during their mother’s illness and death (due in part to his reluctance to accept that, even as a doctor, there are some things he can’t fix) – and beyond its core “lion-chase-man”, the film’s story is about reconciling them with Nate. At the start of the film, he struggles to find any common ground with them, while failing to confront how his arrogance let his loved ones down – something that sees him regularly ignore good advice and behave in a stupid, needlessly risky way early in the film. By the end, he has learned how to connect on their level, while also learning that being a medical expert does not make him infallible.
It’s a story we’re primed for when Mere is spotted in an early scene wearing a Jurassic Park t-shirt – another film in which a scientific expert pulls a stick out of his backside, and learns to connect with two kids on their own terms. While for some that’s a little on the nose, it seems an appropriate nod to a film and filmmaker that clearly influenced the creation of Beast.
Less welcome is the film’s perceived need to baby us as to what is going on. In the opening scene, we see a pride of lions wiped out by poachers – except for its male who escapes. Martin the game warden later informs us a male lion’s only role in life is to guard its family, and then also informs us that this lone-survivor is possibly killing people to avenge his pride. This is long after any viewer with a pulse has gathered as much. Similarly, Nate’s final plan to defeat the man-eater – involving a second pride of lions whose males were hand-reared by Martin – is explained in one of the closing moments of the film, not only after we saw it play out, but after we realised it was going to happen at the start of the third act. We don’t need this spelling out – and it would have been better to use this space to expand upon the healing between Nate, Mere and Norah instead.
Beyond that, there is a lot to enjoy unironically here. The problem may be that it is unironic, though. At least in terms of the box office, Manohla Dargis’ review of Beast may be symptomatic of why it is struggling to recoup its $36 million budget (it has earned $22 million at time of writing). It’s not nearly stupid enough for the so-bad-it’s-good crowd to guffaw at ironically, or bring other such viewers in. Meanwhile, beyond a niche group of weirdoes who enjoy creature features (myself included), there’s nothing ground-breaking enough to draw in a wider legitimate audience.
Still, with Ben Wheatley now slated to direct Meg 2: The Trench, it’s exciting to see creature features possibly resurrected as a sub-genre and this will build excitement for that, as arguably the best animal-attack horror in a decade or more. So, if you’ve got 90 minutes to kill this summer, and you’re sick of the endless MCU/DCU churn that mainstream cinema has become, Beast is a well-paced, adrenaline-fuelled romp that is well worth your time.
For other creature features to keep you checking the long-grass this summer, (or some that will make a good screening for your ‘crap movie club’) check out our list on the sub-genre.