It’s the end of summer and blockbuster fatigue is in the air. What better time than August, then, for a flick like Beast – a man vs. animal survival thriller starring the great Idris Elba and directed by journeyman filmmaker Baltasar Kormákur – to come roaring into theaters? On its agreeably grisly surface, Beast possesses a great deal of appeal. The film is a tightly-paced and appealingly lean affair (90 or so minutes without credits) that just so happens to star one of our most charismatic leading men in a no-frills, all-kills high-concept elevator-pitch premise. Beast purports to be paean for a simpler time in moviegoing, where all studios needed to put butts in seats was the promise of an A-list star going up against a seemingly unkillable animal foe. It’s the kind of retro conceit that just screams “goofy.” Or so one would think.
In spite of a handful of inspired touches, Kormákur’s latest isn’t much for levity and ultimately doesn’t take long to announce itself as another one of summer 2022’s more resounding cinematic disappointments. A movie that concludes with the man who played Stringer Bell on The Wire engaging in a brutal knife fight with the proverbial king of the jungle should not be as dull as Beast ends up being. What we have here is an ostensible popcorn thrill ride that seems almost afraid to make good on the nutty-fun time that its logline promises the audience. The movie frequently tip-toes right to the edge of silliness, always before carefully backing away from the edge, as if giving one’s self over to a good time is some kind of sin.
Right off the bat, almost from the first scene, there is an alarming degree of self-serious portent in Beast. It’s as if the filmmakers thought they were aspiring to Spielbergian melodrama when what they’ve really got on their hands is the template for a classic, Roger Corman-inspired B-movie guilty pleasure. Even Spielberg knows when to pause for a well-deserved laugh, whereas Beast simply doesn’t seem interested in the concept of humor as a tool for lending a sense of levity to its admittedly tense action sequences.
Frankly, audiences should have expected this much from Kormákur. To date, the director is responsible for, among other offerings, the reasonably diverting, star-studded thriller Everest, and also Contraband and 2 Guns, two generic, if watchable Mark Wahlberg actioners that are no doubt in a Target bargain bin somewhere near you. These are movies that, like Beast, should be very, very silly. For better or worse, though, Kormákur is a technician who operates in a strictly poker-faced register. Joking around is simply not in his cinematic vocabulary. Even the Lethal Weapon-inspired 2 Guns is somehow more glum than it should be. He is undeniably a technically skilled director of suspense sequences and whenever he gets the chance to ratchet up the terror for his besieged characters, Beast gestures at the more persuasive genre item it might have otherwise been.
Of course, there’s a difference between littering your movie with jokes and simply letting the air out of it. We’ve seen diminishing returns in certain blockbusters even from this year (looking at you, Thor: Love And Thunder), where the overwhelming sense of frivolity is so pronounced that the audience starts to wonder why they should take any of what they’re watching seriously. Beast could never be accused of that particular kind of self-satisfied buffoonery, and yet, the movie’s dramatic approach borders on turgid at times. The animal-survival thrillers of the 80s and 90s knew how to balance humor with gripping human drama and set pieces: even if the characters dared to crack a stray witticism now and then, there was never any doubt that the stakes at hand were life or death. Beast fails to walk this tonal tightrope: it’s dour where it should be rousing, and sluggish when it should be picking up steam.
It’s largely thanks to a fierce, assured, and emotionally grounded lead performance from Elba, plus some ravishing views of the wind-swept African plains captured by cinematographer Phillipe Rousselot, that Beast is somehow passable, even its least credible. After all, credibility is not the movie’s problem: the problem is that this is a movie that should feel like a good time, and it’s anything but. Elba is inherently miscast as Dr. Nate Samuels: the actor normally exudes effortless swagger, so while he’s generally up to the task of playing a perpetually frazzled widow and father of two girls, it still feels like a missed opportunity. Idris can do gravitas in his sleep, but the movie never allows him the space to have a little fun in the role. This is because there’s nothing terribly serious-minded, at least on paper, about a movie where a family man protects his brood from an apex predator.
Beast is also regrettably littered with leaden flashback sequences that explain to the audience that Nate has recently and tragically suffered the loss of his wife, thus leaning into the movie’s over-pronounced sense of doom and gloom. Since this motif of grief is never explored in any meaningful way, it mostly feels like a hindrance to what should otherwise be a fun, crowd-pleasing audience movie. A smarter film would save this reveal for later, or get rid of the dream sequences altogether, so as to not muck up the mood. To Kormákur’s credit, he wastes no time in getting to the juicy set pieces that his audience came to see, but even these sequences feel depressingly routine. This is a movie that should be chock-full of “oh shit” moments, but Beast is depressingly light on them.
It’s one thing that this year’s Marvel and Netflix blockbusters have been even more subpar than usual. Beast, though, should be a sure thing. The film operates from a recipe that has almost always worked, at least when executed well. So why then is it such a chore to get through? In the end, it comes down to a fundamental issue of miscalculation: despite its technical virtues and a truly magnetic and commanding lead performance from Elba, Beast is an innately un-serious film that makes the critical mistake of taking itself too seriously. It’s a weirdly glum experience that will make you yearn for the proudly unfashionable sincerity and zany goofball energy of someone like Stephen Sommers. Come to think of it, a Stephens Sommers-directed version of Beast probably would have ripped.