By Lynn Venhaus
Even an actor as good as Idris Elba can’t save this overblown and half-baked adventure-thriller.
When poachers slaughter a pride of lions, ticking off a big cat who goes rogue and becomes a killing machine, this coincides with a doctor’s visit taking his two daughters to their mother’s homeland in South Africa for a getaway safari. But their dream vacation turns into a nightmare instead in yet another movie called “Beast.”
Dr. Nate Samuels (Idris Elba) was separated from his wife at the time of her death from cancer, and this has led to friction with the oldest grieving daughter, Meredith “Mere” (Iyana Halley). They are staying with the mom’s childhood friend, Martin (Sharlto Copley), who oversees an animal preserve, protecting all the creatures on the savanna.
While it starts out promisingly enough, with stunning scenic backdrops and sweeping shots of galloping giraffes, “Beast” quickly falls apart when it becomes “Cujo” and the ticked off apex predator hunts down all humans in sight – except when he/she doesn’t.
The maulings are intense and gruesome, obviously – did they not ever heed ‘it’s not nice to fool Mother Nature?’ and the cast illogically puts themselves in harm’s way.
Characters make a series of decisions that go from bad to worse, so that they seem as dense as people in slasher films. The youngest daughter, Norah (Leah Jeffries), has a penchant for wandering at the worst times. (But is it ever a good thing in unfamiliar territory?).
While I’m not skilled in the laws of the jungle, I’m pretty sure screenwriter Ryan Engle ignores most of them.
Engle takes a video game approach, just as he did in “Rampage” and run-of-the-mill Liam Neeson movies “Commuter” and “Non-Stop,” and the action doesn’t match the characters, who are poorly drawn in the broadest cliches. For a supposedly smart man, Elba’s Dr. Samuels has little common sense.
Then there are the standard tropes. We have the angry daughter lashing out at busy doctor dad who wasn’t around. Oh, that’s original. Scenes of unrealistic peril ensue, even for an animals-attack plot.
By the end, you just want everyone to be put out of their misery after what seems to be an interminable amount of pummeling. The film’s saving grace is its short runtime of 93 minutes — yet, the ending is ludicrous.
It’s not a good sign that the audience seemed to lose patience midway, and laughter grew. Would you willingly smash a walkie-talkie when that is your only lifeline?
As their friend Martin, Sharlto Copley does what he can with a role that mostly dispenses information as he gives them a tour, which goes horribly wrong. Copley, who showed so much promise in “District 9” in 2009, doesn’t have an opportunity here to stand out, and he’s better than the material..
Jeffries and Halley are natural enough as sisters. While paralyzed with fear, they still display survival skills and actually help dad when he needs it. Elba’s character owns up to his failings, so you expect the squabbles given the circumstances. But the end game is that they bond.
However, the characters are soon boxed in, and not just in the vehicle — and the conveniences become contrivances. Whatever goodwill we had for the characters evaporates and interest wanes, so that the conclusion seems anticlimactic.
Elba shows a physical side again, but this time as a flawed hero, not menacing like in “The Harder They Fall,” “Suicide Squad,” and his brief appearances in the Marvel Cinematic Universe as Heimdall. Dramatically, in film, he has yet to surpass his work in “Beasts of No Nation” in 2015, although he is best known for his television work in “Luther” and “The Wire.”
Director Baltasar Kormakur’s style is very busy, with quick cuts, and his longshots lack focus — especially as the characters’ overlapping dialogue becomes hard to understand, and it is more difficult than it should be to hear what the actors are saying.
While one can appreciate his intensity in man vs. nature conflicts, he fares better when it’s a war against the elements, unlike here, dealing with a hulking CGI beast of a lion. In “Adrift” in 2018, he gave a riveting account of Hurricane Raymond survivor Tami Oldman (Shailene Woodley) at sea, while in “Everest” he methodically delivered a procedural on the 1996 disaster on the world’s highest mountain that got bogged down with melodrama.
Still, “Beast” is a lot to unpack. Hampered by not only poor sound but also sloppy computer-generated graphic images that don’t seem realistic, the film becomes a merciless slog.
Disingenuous and dissatisfying, “Beast” is ultimately forgettable soon after exiting the theater.
“Beast” is an action-thriller directed by Baltasar Kormákur and stars Idris Elba, Sharlto Copley, Leah Jeffries and Iyana Halley. It’s rated R for violent content, bloody images and some language and run time is 1 hour, 33 minutes. It opens in theaters on Aug. 19. Lynn’s Grade: D.
Lynn Venhaus has had a continuous byline in St. Louis metro region publications since 1978. She is a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, currently reviews films for Webster-Kirkwood Times and KTRS Radio, covers entertainment for PopLifeSTL.com and co-hosts podcast PopLifeSTL.com…Presents, and writes features and news for Belleville News-Democrat and contributes to other publications. She is a member of CCA, AWFJ and St. Louis Film Critics Association. She is a founding member of the St. Louis Theater Circle.