Producers: James Lopez, Will Packer and Jaime Primak Sullivan Director: Baltasar Kormákur Screenplay: Ryan Engle Cast: Idris Elba, Iyana Halley, Leah Sava Jeffries, Sharlto Copley, Anzor Alem, Martin Munro and Tafara Nyatsanza Distributor: Universal
“Jaws” has never been officially remade, but that’s a minor blessing: it’s been copied so many times, with various critters taking the place of the shark, that the plot has become a complete cliché, not that it was ever all that original to begin with. The latest iteration is this thriller by Baltasar Kormákur, in which a lion is the titular beast.
Man-eating lions are not exactly new to movies, of course. Apart from numerous cheap jungle adventures, the best-known may be 1996’s “The Ghost and the Darkness.” But that film, while no masterpiece, was psychologically complex compared to this simplistic tale. And while “Jaws” had all sorts of trouble making the shark realistic in the days prior to CGI, “Beast” isn’t without its problems in that regard. More often than not the big cat looks precisely like the animated creature it obviously is. It’s just more proof that digital effects, while they’ve advanced remarkably since George Lucas pioneered their use, still have a way to go.
Idris Elba stars as Dr. Nate Samuels, a widower who brings his two adolescent daughters Meredith (Iyana Halley) and Norah (Leah Sava Jeffries) from America to South Africa to visit the homeland of their late mother, from whom he was separated. (The girls are still upset with him over her death from cancer.) They’re welcomed by “Uncle” Marty Battles (Sharlto Copley), who was close to Nate and his wife and remained in Africa to oversee a game preserve while they moved to the U.S.
But the area is overrun with vicious poachers led by a nasty white (Martin Munro. They’ve just wiped out a pride of lions—except for its alpha male. That cat, reacting much the same way the mama shark did after the death of its child in the lamentable “Jaws 3-D,” seeks vengeance against not only the poachers but all humans, and has begun its campaign just as the Samuels arrive and are being shown around by Marty. After visiting a spot in the refuge where a semi-domesticated pride is watched over by one of Marty’s aides (Anzor Alem), they come upon a village whose inhabitants have been massacred by the killer lion.
As they leave the enraged cat attacks their vehicle, and the rest of the film involves their attempts to kill it or escape from it. Naturally, courage and self-sacrifice assume an important part in their efforts. So does that peaceful pride of lions, which you might say plays a role akin to that of Chekhov’s gun here—if you introduce a family of lions in Act I, you’d better put it to use in Act III. Scripter Ryan Engle does so, with the appropriate explanation delivered early on. And there’s PETA justice too, since the poachers show up again to get what they deserve.
Elba brings his A-game intensity to the role of the father turned fighter, even if the first half-hour, in which the character struggles to reconnect with his daughters, who are definitely not happy to be without WiFi service, while occasionally being haunted by flashbacks to his late wife (played by Tafara Nyatsanza), offers him little to hold onto but generalized angst. Later on he must have expended a lot of energy dealing with blue-screens or green-screens while acting against an unseen antagonist, with a particularly complex sequence toward the very close (which, to be honest, is not terribly convincing). In such a CGI-heavy effort the same observation applies to all the small cast, but they acquit themselves decently. Both girls are fine, screaming on cue and making their periodic shows of resourcefulness fairly convincing, if frequently ill-advised, and Copley is nicely loose as a character whose fate you will no doubt foresee far in advance.
Apart from the effects team, whose plate must have been very full, the technical side of “Beast” is capable enough, from Jean-Vincent Puzos’ production design to Jay Rabinowitz’s editing (despite a couple of points where transitions are clipped) and Steven Price’s propulsive background score. But cinematographer Philippe Rousselot too often resorts to frazzled, whiplash camerawork, apparently hoping to muddy the visuals so that the lion won’t seem so obviously computer-generated and inserted into the live action. A couple of dream (or nightmare) sequences similarly strive too crudely for shocks.
So this “Jaws”-on-land clone offers a few effective jump scares, provided you’re willing to put up with a thoroughly predictable, rather ludicrous plot and effects that leave something to be desired. But it’s still just an inferior dupe.