Idris Elba Beast review

Idris Elba deserves better than Beast

“Elba’s charisma carries most of the film, but most of the action scenes are garbage, and with lazy writing that lacks a strong narrative and moral backbone, the movie does not work as either an action film or a horror.”

For genre film fans, there’s nothing more delicious than an absurdly simple premise. For that reason, Beast, which billed itself as Idris Elba versus a lion, seemed promising. Things quickly fell apart, though, as the film took shortcuts at every turn; clumsy stock footage, cheap music cues and bad effects were further bolstered by the lazy writing. Unlike movies like Crawl or Jaws, which pushed the man versus giant animal premise to its limits, Beast failed to raise the stakes. 

Most of the action scenes are garbage. They’re poorly lit, and there exists no artfulness to the frame. The cheaper-end CGI combined with unmotivated camera movements makes much of the animal sequences feel like cut scenes from early 2000-era survival games like Dino Crisis. The movie does not work as either an action film or a horror. There’s not enough gravity to the filmmaking, which does little to translate the urgency of the lion’s abnormal behaviour, particularly in earlier scenes as the crisis begins.

Idris Elba and most of the cast do their best. Elba’s charisma carries most of the film, and even he fails to sell some of the dialogue. His character arc is handled clumsily, as he’s neither brutish nor distant enough. The story framing him as an absent father is poorly handled. One senses, particularly in early scenes as they arrive in South Africa, that his constant drinking is a symptom (or a cause) of at least some of his daughter’s alienation towards him, but it’s barely addressed — a character detail left completely unexplored. (Briefly, you might think that the script is stronger than what turns up on the screen. Is it a coincidence that his early drinking is mirrored by his use of alcohol during the climax? Could it be just a coincidence or an unwillingness to read the text carefully on behalf of the filmmakers?) As shit hits the fan and he’s forced to protect his family from an angry lion, why does his character evolution feel so insignificant? 

However, the movie again does a piss-poor job of taking any real stance. While the lion is the cause of an immediate threat within the film, the real villains are the poachers. There are allusions to one of the characters being an “anti-poacher” (someone who kills poachers), and it’s immediately apparent that the poachers are bad guys, but what else? Why does the film feel like it has so little to say about our relationship with the natural world? Once again, a movie like Crawl, about a giant alligator lured out of its territory after a category five hurricane, uses its premise well. As climate change blurs the land between “urban” and “natural” worlds, animals will increasingly encroach into “our” territory. Much like the recent story of a walrus killed by the Norwegian government, these new conditions caused by the climate crisis raise compelling and challenging ethical questions

You can argue that Beast doesn’t have to be more than just a big monster animal movie, but the premise begs for some moral core to hold things together. Some of the poetry of b-movie storytelling is that it’s allowed for blunt messaging that often gets softened to be more palatable for wider audiences. A movie like Beast is precisely the kind of movie you can shoe-horn an on-the-nose message about fatherhood or the natural world, yet it ultimately feels devoid of any fundamental stance or ideas. 

There’s a market for more mid- to low-budget action horror films that use a deceptively simple premise to create something dynamic and fun. Beast fails to hit the mark. It lacks a strong narrative and moral backbone and can’t land the action either. Even at just over 90 minutes, the movie feels overstretched and unambitious. ■

Beast, directed by Baltasar Kormákur

Beast opens in Montreal theatres on Aug. 18.

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