Early in the man-versus-nature horror movie Beast, one of the characters wears a faux-vintage Jurassic Park T-shirt — a choice that scans as clear homage, from one Universal summer nature-from-hell creature feature to another. Beast even features that classic Jurassic movie trope, a pair of siblings struggling to stay out of view as a large animal circles the vehicle where they’re trapped. But in spite of the parallels, in spite of a surprising level of craft for a late-August release in a summer where an actual Jurassic Park sequel got a prime June slot, Beast ultimately isn’t gunning for status as a Jurassic upstart or companion piece. The movie is assured as it stakes out its own smaller territory.
Beast’s most noticeable departure from the Jurassic series is its intimacy; only four members of the human cast really register as significant. Nate Samuels (Idris Elba) is a doctor returning to South Africa for a vacation with his daughters Meredith (Iyana Halley) and Norah (Leah Jeffries) following the death of the girls’ mother, who was separating from Nate when she got sick. They meet up with Uncle Martin (Sharlto Copley), though his title is an honorific; he’s a friend of the family who now works as an “anti-poacher” on an African preserve, protecting lions and other animals. Martin takes them out to see some lions and visit a local village. They find the village has been torn apart, and soon enough, a single vengeful lion is stalking all of them.
Yes, a vengeful lion. As near as Martin can tell, this lion has “gone rogue” (his words) following the death of his pack. Typically, female lions do the hunting and males protect the pride, but this fearsome beast has moved from protection to sheer revenge. (Call him Lion Neeson.) It’s very much in the tradition of another Spielberg summer creature movie: Like Jaws, Beast heightens basic human fears about a sharp-toothed predator into something impossible, even ridiculous, yet weirdly plausible for most people.
Repeatedly evoking Spielberg doesn’t necessarily do Beast any favors. The film doesn’t have the distinctive characters of Jaws, the stunning effects of Jurassic Park, or the sweaty-palmed, clenched-fist sequences of either movie. (Or for that matter, of The Lost World.) At the same time, director Baltasar Kormákur, who’s focused his American career on survival stories like Everest and Adrift, obviously put some effort into staging the lion attacks, the downtime in between, and the exposition that leads there.
Kormákur uses long takes — some showy and possibly computer-assisted, but plenty that are more matter-of-fact — to turn the audience into tourists. First we’re following along as the Samuels kids look through Martin’s house and see the South African wilderness for the first time. Later, we’re stuck in their car, or underneath it, as the lion circles, swipes, and gnashes its teeth. The camera keeps catching the lion through windows or in the distance, a second or two before the characters notice. Half the fun of the movie is watching Kormákur move through his limited spaces. It’s a skillful tight-spot thriller.
The camerawork offers stronger human storytelling than the obligatory talk about Nate letting his kids down, or about stepping up mid-crisis to protect them in a way he couldn’t shelter them from their mom’s death. These aren’t the most egregiously shoehorned-in emotions ever seen in a 93-minute survival/creature thriller; Halley and Jeffries have a naturally awkward, believable rapport with their on-screen dad Elba, and they’re all easy to like. Even more surprising: Overactor extraordinaire Sharlto Copley turns in a restrained, no-nonsense performance!
But it’s easy to wonder whether producer Will Packer had a hand in the movie’s family dynamics. Packer-produced comedies like What Men Want and Night School are sometimes marred with teachable-moment piety, and in this case, the lessons are a little cracked. Meredith resents Nate because her mother died of cancer, which spurs him to protect his remaining family at any cost. But is Nate, a doctor who should be familiar with extraordinary life-saving measures and the inevitability of losing some patients, really supposed to learn that it’s his personal responsibility to battle death hand-to-hand? In this context, the standard-issue survival-movie tenacity feels almost like denial, with Nate seeking redemption for something that was truly impossible to control. For a movie addressing the unknowable ferocity of nature, Beast has a daft, even simple-minded conviction about what can keep chaos and murder at bay.
This is a minor complaint for an enjoyably minor movie. For much of its slim running time, Beast does what it’s supposed to do, right down to the buzzy moments of silliness where it bravely, too briefly heads over the top. (Yes, a human challenges a lion to a one-on-one fight.) It even forms an accidental trilogy with two other recent August releases: Prey, Fall, and Beast comprise a miniature revival of the stripped-down, well-crafted thriller, summer movies more like The Shallows or Don’t Breathe (or, reaching further back, Breakdown or Red Eye) than wannabe blockbusters bloated out to epic length. At a time when Jurassic World keeps trying to expand its reach, here’s another reminder of just how much less can actually look like more.
Beast opens in theaters on Aug. 19.