‚Beast‘ movie review: A blood-maddened lion is loose in Idris Elba-led survival thriller

The most compelling horror movies are often about quotidian things. Ari Aster’s ‚Hereditary‘, the most frightening film of 21st century in this scribe’s view, chills the viewer to the bone not because its plot features a pagan deity trying to take over the world by using vulnerable humans as his host — though that would have been enough — but because Aster realises like no other horror filmmaker that most compelling scares come from what is familiar. The movie explores familial trauma and grief. Demons or zombies or vampires then appear pudding in comparison.

Now, Idris Elba-led ‚Beast‘, a survival horror thriller directed by Baltasar Kormákur, is nowhere near as highbrow or as complex as ‚Hereditary‘. On the contrary, thematically and plot-wise, it is as simple as its lean runtime of 93 minutes suggests. But this movie also taps into a very genuine fear of being stalked by a blood-maddened apex predator in his territory. 

The film begins with a prologue where a group of poachers kills an almost entire pride in the dark of night. But a lone lion escapes and picks them off one by one.

Nate Samuels (Elba) is an American doctor who is visiting a forest reserve in South Africa for a lion safari to reconnect with his young daughters. Before their mother’s death from cancer, Nate had separated from her and kept dithering over coming back. His elder daughter Meredith (Iyana Halley) has reason to resent her father and dislikes being dragged out into the middle of nowhere. Norah (Leah Sava Jeffries), the younger one, is more sensitive and forgiving of her father and is actually enthusiastic about the experience.

After meeting with his old friend and Martin Battles (Sharlto Copley), a wildlife biologist and their host, they set off for a safari. Along the way, they meet a pride of fully grown lions and lionesses. The terrifyingly beautiful animals greet Martin like an old friend. One of the lionesses has a wound in a paw that appears to be the result of a gunshot. Apparently, poachers prowl the lands, looking to earn big bucks by selling lion skins, teeth, and bones. In a village, they find scenes of a massacre. Pretty much everyone is mauled to death by what looks like a lion, but even more disconcertingly, none have been eaten — just left for dead. This is not your typical lion’s behaviour, Martin informs.

It turns out that the culprit, a particularly huge and particularly furious lion who has been killing every human he meets, was the same beast that was left alone after the poachers decimated his entire pride. And soon enough it is Nate, his daughter, and Martin who are the feline’s target.

The movie’s title questions whether the kind of qualities we associate with beasts — ferocity, cruelty, and violence — would not apply to the humans who casually kill for sport and commercial gain as opposed to animals who kill only to survive. 

And that is as deep as the movie goes. This is not a complaint, mind you. Once in a while, a movie comes that delivers all the thrills without taxing your brain too much. Having a lead as charismatic as Elba also helps. His character is kind of inconsistent — by turns goofball who often swivels to emotional intensity — but the actor manages to sell it.

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But the real stars of the movie are the lions. The reason is the quality of CGI and animation is simply outstanding, especially in a movie of a comparatively low budget. In a scene when the lions, the friendly ones, surround and hug Martin gave a happy jolt to me. It was breathtaking to watch. We see the entirety of the evil beastie only in the end and if I didn’t know better, I would have thought they trained a real lion to claw and bite in a friendly way.

The camera angles by cinematographer Philippe Rousselot when the lion attacks are astonishingly effective in close quarters, often giving a first-person view of the ensuing carnage. This movie at times felt 3D without actually being 3D. Preferably, watch this movie in a theatre. The thrills are carefully crafted and surround sound effects complement the visuals nicely. This is thrilling filmmaking in every sense of the word.

‚Beast‘, of course, has shortcomings. I did not mind the simplistic plot, but some might. Also, those who know their big cats intimately would realise that lions do not behave like that like the beast in the movie does. They do not take 5 minutes to kill a human in a fair fight (without firearms) — more like a few seconds. And they can see in the dark as well as we see in the day so in the scene where Nate saves himself from the lion by just stopping? An actual lion would have instantly ripped his throat out. The story does take leaps of logic. Suspension of disbelief is often required. 

But this are nitpicking in a movie that delivers exactly what it promised: a survival horror thriller in which Idris Elba and a lion fight. Nothing more, nothing less. 

Now, I cannot stop yearning for a similar film on the man-eating tigers of Kumaon.