Beast review: Jaws meets Cujo in Idris Elba’s safari nightmare

Idris Elba in BeastUniversal Pictures

Beast, Idris Elba’s heart-racing, edge-of-your-seat nightmare, answers the question: what would happen if you encountered Scar from The Lion King on safari?

Worst-case scenario cinema has been an age-old source of terror and thrills. The Towering Inferno had a fire engulf the tallest skyscraper on Earth. Jaws saw the king of the sea invade a naive seaside town, chomping paddling pets and children. Cujo unleashed a big, scary dog with rabies into suburbia. In The Descent, spelunking somehow gets worse than being stuck.

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We can’t help but indulge our worst fears. It’s a compulsive need to poke the bear in our heads – or in this case, a roaring, blood-toothed lion with an insatiable taste for carnage.

Beast is a B-movie testament to several unwavering facts: watching Elba punch a lion in the face is top-quality entertainment; poachers are scum; rural South Africa is beautiful; and its wildlife is extraordinary and terrifying, in equal measure.

Beast is Jaws with a lion

We open on crunching leaves and twigs, crickets chirping into the night, and a soft growl in the distance. A pride of lions faces the collective fate of bullets – but one gets away. Immediately, armed with their shaking guns and trembling lips, the hunters become the hunted.

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Flash-forward to Nate (Elba), who’s taking his daughters Meredith (Iyana Halley) and Norah (Leah Sava Jaffries) to South Africa in the wake of their mother’s death. They reunite with Uncle Martin (Sharlto Copley), the “enforcer” of the reserve who tracks poachers and hugs big cats.

He takes them on a private tour to non-public areas, but they quickly realize something is rotting in the cape; a raging lion is on the loose, and they don’t know whether they’re prey or bait.

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Beast is tense, fast-paced and brutal

In terms of story, this is an unambitious movie. It’s a tight 90 with some schmaltzy, eye-rolling father-daughter drama, but its main focus is the constant, on-the-backfoot tension of the prowling lion.

It’s not without surprises – its brutal turns aren’t for the faint of heart – but it never goes beyond its basic needs. Even though the dialogue is (mostly) cringe-worthy, there’s something rather admirable in how they’re all sketched: Nate is a hot mess of a dad; Meredith is erratic and resentful; and Norah is always trying to keep the peace. They’re all infuriating to watch at one point or another, as they should be – how would you deal with that situation, really?

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Idris Elba and the cast of BeastUniversal Pictures
Idris Elba has to protect his family from a rogue lion in Beast.

The filmmaking is on another level, with 2 Guns and Everest director Baltasar Kormákur having a muscular rein on every moment of horror. Maulings are visceral and frightening, the white-knuckle suspense rarely lets up, and even against the epic backdrop of the South African countryside, he keeps the pressure on close-quarters, gradual panic – you may as well be stuck in that truck with them. There’s also one scene clearly inspired by the raptor in the kitchen moment in Jurassic Park, which is never a bad place to start.

Even the most inattentive eye will clock DP Philippe Rousselot’s sheer use of oners, AKA a scene built around a single uncut shot. It borders on showing off, especially when Elba and co. are just exploring a guest house.

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But as the film shifts gears in the wilderness, there’s constant payoff in the lack of cuts, whether the camera’s panning round to a growl in the window, or characters are running away as bodies are torn, dragged, and ripped apart.

Beast has the best on-screen lion since the MGM logo

There’s some real shoulder-wagging sound design at play: swarms of flies buzzing around shredded corpses; the light, wet flops of entrails being tugged and pecked by vultures; and the most impactful on-screen lion since the original MGM logo.

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The CGI, similarly to Predator prequel Prey, can occasionally be a bit ropey on the furry side, but this is a minor grievance when the animal is so fierce. A hat-tip should be given to Gravity extraordinaire Steven Price too, who builds upon all of Kormákur’s flair with a pulse-quickening, emotional score.

Ultimately, Beast is a nasty, propulsive, safari-gone-wrong thrill ride that’ll have you howling at the screen.

Beast drops in cinemas August 26.

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