Beast: Shallow Pleasures, by David Bax
Taking into account both human and animal safety, relying completely on CGI when it comes to a movie featuring multiple instances of hand to hand combat with a furious lion is obviously the ethical way to go. All of the animals in Baltasar Kormákur‘s Beast, in fact, are computer generated, from lions to snakes to crocodiles. The tradeoff is a deficit in the believability of what we see befall our characters of all species. But Beast is more interested in being fun than believable and it succeeds where it counts.
In addition to the extensive use of visual effects, there are other clear signs that respect for animals in general and lions in particular is much on the mind of Beast‘s makers. Responsibly learning a lesson from Steven Spielberg‘s Jaws, a masterpiece that nevertheless villainized innocent sharks for generations of humanity, Ryan Engle’s screenplay (with a “story by” credit for Jaime Primak Sullivan) goes out of its way to depict African lions as majestic and generally harmless to humans unless threatened before introducing the creature feature’s raison d’etre, a crazed lion possessed of a singular and, arguably, understandable hatred of human beings.
Kormákur’s career has been a hard one to draw a straight line through. He first showed up with 2000’s Icelandic dark comedy 101 Reykjavík, which owed a clear debt to the American slacker indie fare of the 1990s. Then he spent over a decade bouncing between middlebrow Icelandic movies and director-to-video style American thrillers and dramas until making his first major Hollywood move with 2012’s stylish if poorly calibrated Mark Wahlberg actioner Contraband. Since then, with films like 2013’s 2 Guns and 2015’s Everest under his belt, he’s come to occupy a similar space to Jaume Collet-Serra ((if less celebrated by cinephiles) before Collet-Serra graduated to making studio IP projects. In that sense, Beast is Kormákur’s The Shallows, a lean, occasionally nasty and often quite ridiculous man against animal flick.
Beast allows Kormákur to exercise the action muscles he’s developed over the years but it also suggests a heretofore untapped facility for horror. Sure, the lion is scary and the wounds it inflicts are gory but I’m referring more to the quieter moments when the creature is absent from the frame but could be lurking just a pounce away in any direction. Kormákur follows characters walking at night and keeps the camera close, leading us to clench our jaws and lean in to try to see what’s in front of or behind them.
As with many of the classic horror movies of the monster variety, Beast has its fair share of hokeyness. The seemingly supernatural intelligence of this one particular lion and his revenge-driven motivation recall some of the Jaws sequels. With Kormákur in confident popcorn mode, though, this ridiculousness is a feature, not a bug.
So if you’re the type to think you’re too cool for such movies then, please, do yourself and other moviegoers a favor and stay home. Otherwise, prepare to grip your frosty soda cup tight and have a good time.