Baltasar Kormákur’s man vs. lion adventure film “Beast” is positively Spielbergian … late Spielberg, that is. Unlike the fan service-dependent tributes like “Stranger Things” and its nostalgic ilk, Kormákur studies the craftsmanship of the modern blockbuster’s father more than his cultural impact. (Though one character in the film does give a nod to the master by wearing a “Jurassic Park” tank top, that level of wink is harmless.) With the partnership and handiwork of Oscar-winning cinematographer Philippe Rousselot, Kormákur follows the compass that has made Spielberg a class above his competition. If you can get a scene in a single take, you should.
The camera work of “Beast” is not ostentatious or self-aware in the way ace DPs like Emmanuel Lubezki or Roger Deakins have turned the oner into an athletic competition. Rousselot captures clean, coherent image sequences that establish location, character, and time with incredible efficacy. This meat-and-potatoes visual storytelling earns the tension it hopes to create between star Idris Elba’s Dr. Nate Samuels and the natural world that threatens his family on a visit to their uncle Martin Battles (Sharlto Copley) in South Africa. Kormákur shows a movie need not be big and loud just to justify its presence on the silver screen. Simple technique executed spryly with an eye for mapping out the flow of a scene in camera and character blocking – not just counting on a slapdash splice job in the editing room for salvation – makes an enormous difference here.
The larger reason for modern blockbusters delivering death by a thousand cuts, though, is rushed VFX work that cannot hold up to more than a few frames of scrutiny. (To be fair, this was also true of the shark in “Jaws,” but Spielberg’s artful suspense makes for a far better solution than today’s visually incoherent montages.) There’s no such issue in “Beast,” where the CGI lions rival the photorealism of “The Lion King.” Kormákur is not afraid the show the enemy in extended shots, which in turn brings the audience closer to the fear experienced by the characters as they try to survive the siege of the animal kingdom.
Too bad about the rest of the movie, though.
At just 93 minutes in duration, “Beast” operates with leanness to rival the Kon-Mari method. The film sets up the lurking antagonist in the Serengeti, introduces Dr. Samuels and his two daughters, establishes their shared grief over a lost matriarch, and then instantly throws them into peril on a safari. But screenwriter Ryan Engle’s script mistakes its economy for elementalism. Abstracting a story into allegory can often help paper over plot holes and other story deficiencies, but “Beast” puts ever so slightly too much meat on the bone that it cannot quite satisfy as a full meal.
There’s just enough detail to make the characters of “Beast” more than cardboard cutouts standing in for ideas. Yet there’s not enough to inspire the slightest bit of emotional connection. Elba and his daughters are drawing on the flimsiest bit of grief established with only surface-level conversations to power them through the harrowing battle against the attacking lions. Engle either needed to provide more moments deepening Dr. Samuels’ internal conflicts (a broad “I missed the signs” does not cut it) or boil the story down even more until it was just essentialism.
The latter option would appear more in line with the overall goals of “Beast,” given that there’s not much logic to the lions. The jungle creatures hold little metaphorical value in their own right for the characters’ journey, instead operating as blanket tokens in the traditional “man vs. nature” conflict. No strong understanding emerges of how each side of this dichotomy feeds into the other amidst a hodgepodge of Spielbergian narrative cliches – the broken family, the (emotionally) absent father, and the bonding power of crisis. Engle understands the film’s heritage structurally, if not entirely soulfully.
And then, just like that … “Beast” ends. The film’s anticlimactic climax feels like the production simply ran out of budget to shoot the giant showdown they were planning. Nonetheless, even an abrupt ending cannot completely spoil the thrills of a carefully constructed piece of mass entertainment. It’s Kormákur’s directorial verve and vision that elevates “Beast” to something slightly more than just disposable entertainment. Perhaps one day, he’ll choose a studio blockbuster with a story more worthy of his talents. [B-]