What we’re watching
Roaring action – it’s visceral rather than intellectual, but ‘Beast’ is refreshingly cringe-free
Idris Elba faces off against a vengeful rogue lion in a family survival thriller, filmed in South Africa, that’s less cringey than you’d think.
Recently widowed Dr Nate Daniels (Idris Elba) is returning to South Africa with his two teenage daughters to visit the place where he met their mother – a game reserve managed by his old friend Martin (Sharlto Copley). While out on a game drive, Martin and the family are pursued by an enormous human-hunting lion and find themselves scrambling to survive a very different kind of exciting bonding vacation from what they’d had in mind.
A South African hearing this might grimace in anticipation of generalisations about Africa, clunky CGI and a simple, messy plot that just barely links the action sequences it’s built around. Why? Because almost the exact same film was released in 2021, and it was truly awful. The trailer alone for Endangered Species showcases just about everything that could fail in a safari-gone-wrong thriller, of which there have been several over the years. Refreshingly, Beast turns out to be pretty much cringe-free.
Beast is a classic high-concept film – it’s premised upon an easily communicated idea which tracks a “what if” question to its logical conclusion; in this case: what if an American family was stranded in the bush being stalked by a bloodthirsty lion? Executive producer Jaime Primak Sullivan apparently pitched Beast to blockbuster producer Will Packer as “Cujo with a lion”, so it is inherently derivative, and this quote from Packer shows perfectly why high-concept films often lack depth:
“We had to figure out what the story was going to be, who the characters were, how we were going to make it all meld together, but the idea of a lion and a survival thriller got my juices flowing.”
The most crucial elements of the film – character development, plot cohesion, the entire story – are an afterthought. That doesn’t mean the film will fail in these areas (Beast succeeded in at least two of the three) but it does mean that the priority of the film is visceral entertainment rather than intellectual. Indeed, the jump-scares in Beast are genuinely scary, appealing to a primal human fear, and the lion-based action is immersive and extreme – that’s what this kind of movie is all about.
Jaws famously didn’t reveal its giant predator for the bulk of the film in order to save money and because of problems with Bruce, the ridiculous mechanical shark (which only got four minutes of screen time in the entire thing). This created the tense anticipation that made it such a thrilling watch, and when the shark finally was revealed, it looked disappointingly fabricated, even for the Seventies. Since then, movies with archetypal “monster” antagonists have often drawn out the reveal of the creature in the same way, but few directors make it work as well as Spielberg did, and more often than not, the waiting is simply frustrating.
Beast, to its credit, completely avoids both of these genre-specific pitfalls – the lion is revealed in full force as soon as the film begins, massacring a village and charging headlong into a safari vehicle. This is no rickety rubber shark’s head either – the giant cat is utterly, terrifyingly realistic despite being CGI-animated.
The sets, on the other hand, are real. Beast was filmed entirely in South Africa – in Limpopo, the Northern Cape, and Cape Town. This allows for wide, sweeping shots of the bush that impart a sense of its vastness. The set and costume design don’t feel like generic representations of Africa served to a none-the-wiser American audience. Martin’s house and the Venda village feel lived-in and believable. Scattered in the sets are details that quietly foreshadow later plot points, even though most people might not notice them or even know what they were, like the snares displayed in Martin’s house, often displayed by anti-poachers.
The family drama in the film is treated with more sincerity than one might expect from a blockbuster. Beast is firmly in the tradition of family survival thrillers, in which the immediate danger occurs in parallel with the group’s personal conflicts.
Dr Daniels blames himself as both a husband and a doctor for not spotting the signs of his wife’s cancer earlier. There’s a lot of tension between him and his eldest daughter, Meredith (Iyana Halley), who’s suffered too many of his broken promises and feels neglected by him as a father. Meredith’s irritating passive aggression is only eased by her perceptive younger sister, Norah (Leah Jeffries) who constantly defuses tension with her adorable cheeky banter. The precocious Jeffries lights up the film with her quirky humour.
Meredith is a vehicle for a trick played on the audience early in the film – as she walks into Martin’s house she asks, “did mom shoot some of these?” We can’t see what she’s referring to – possibly a wall of mounted animal heads? But instead it’s photographs – the best way to “shoot” game.
This little misdirection is an early hint at the film’s stance on poaching. It’s strongly suggested in the film that the lion has only become so aggressive as a reaction to poachers attacking its pride first. This detail is not to inspire compassion for the lion, but to mitigate the kind of fallout created by Jaws, which resulted in global fear and misconceptions about sharks.
The anthropomorphising of the lion is pretty far-fetched. It behaves diabolically in ways lions don’t, returning over and over, attacking a vehicle, monitoring its wounded prey almost as if using it as bait for other humans. As a figure of authority and experience, Martin is used as a benchmark of danger – when he starts freaking out, that’s when we know it’s serious.
We empathise with the people faced with defending themselves against a seemingly unstoppable threat, and yet this is in itself an analogy for the threat that lions and other animals face from humans. The lion is always seen from the perspective of the characters, furthering this role reversal.
The other “lesson” in the film is more cliché – the old fable of “nature strikes back”. Nature will strike back if we disrespect it, but with scorching heatwaves, rising sea levels and decreasing air quality, not giant hyper-intelligent, calculating apex predators. Beast perpetuates this idea simply because it sounds cool and puts the film on the right side of environmental politics.
Another PC precaution taken by the film is to make the poachers multiracial. The white ringleader is apparently Dutch, possibly because this is the easiest way to have him present as Afrikaans without offending anyone. Martin isn’t clearly Afrikaans either. Copley puts on a slightly more distinguishably South African accent than he actually has, but still comes across naturally, as opposed to the brilliant but almost comically exaggerated Afrikaans accent that he became famous for in District 9.
The rogue lion is colossal, just within the realms of reported size of the recently extinct Barbary lion – the difference in physical strength between Elba and any other adult is negligible compared with the lion he fights, so the choice of a physically powerful actor was likely just for eye candy. Luckily, Elba’s acting chops are as beefy as his biceps so the film doesn’t suffer for it.
The gory final battle of Beast is reminiscent of Leonardo DiCaprio’s horrific savaging by the bear in The Revenant or Liam Neison’s implied final battle against the Alpha wolf in The Grey. It’s gruesome and brutal – you cannot look away. It’s also unquestionably fanciful – an actual human in that situation would most likely be dead about five seconds into the fight if they incurred the same injuries as Dr Daniels.
The tale of man vs beast has been told 1,000 ways throughout human history, from the Greek myth of Theseus and the Minotaur to Moby Dick, to Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds or Jurassic Park. It seems humans are inherently fascinated with (and possibly delusional about) how they physically weigh up against other species.
Martin says it best: “You go out there without a weapon it will be you vs him. That is not a fight you are designed to win.” People love an underdog, especially if the underdog represents their entire species. So we’ll keep telling stories about humans arm-wrestling gorillas or outrunning cheetahs and we’ll keep enjoying them.
Beast has no plot resolution or shocking twist – it plays out much like you expect it to, effectively delivering everything it promises and nothing else. If you want shivering suspense, adventure action and state-of-the-art animal visual effects, you’ll be pleased to receive all three with minimal cringe-worthy renditions of South Africa. If you want more than that: an unpredictable script, a risky score or experimental cinematography, then don’t watch a movie about Idris Elba exchanging fisticuffs with a lion. DM/ML
Beast is available in South Africa in cinemas.
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