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Beast Is An Animal Attack Film With a Heart
Root for the lions!
I’m not generally the best audience for animal attack films because I often end up rooting for the animal. In this year’s The Reef: Stalked, as a recent example, I didn’t find the characters particularly compelling, and I felt like the shark was getting a raw deal in the way the film compared it to a human murderer. Sharks hardly ever kill humans, whereas humans kill millions of sharks. We should blame human violence on humans it seems like. Leave the poor sharks alone.
My expectations for Baltasar Kormákur’s Beast were, therefore, pretty low. But the movie is that rarity: an animal attack film that gives you the requisite jump scares without scapegoating the wildlife.
Sympathy for the Hunted
The movie opens with medical doctor Nate Samuels (Idris Elba) travelling to South Africa on vacation with his two daughters, budding photographer Mer (Iyana Helley) and snarky Norah (Leah Savah Jeffries.)
The three are visiting old friend and game warden Martin Battles (Sharlto Copley), who lives where Nate’s wife grew up. She and Nate became estranged a year or so previously. Then she became sick with cancer and died. Mer hasn’t forgiven him for not being around during her mother’s illness, and Nate hasn’t forgiven himself for failing to diagnose the cancer early.
Nate hopes that the vacation will bring them all together as a family. They travel into the bush for some sight-seeing, and are introduced to some surprisingly friendly lions, which Martin raised from cubs. They are adorable and majestic and eager for hugs.
Shortly thereafter, though, Martin and the Samuels family encounter a less amenable lion. It has gone rogue and is intent on killing humans. Things deteriorate from there.
It would be easy enough in this scenario to position the rogue lion as an avatar of guilt, or as an opportunity for Nate to reclaim his manliness. And there are elements of that in the film, sure enough.
The lion is a fearsome foe, more powerful than any purely mortal creature. It’s like the terrible, unavoidable fate that came for Nate’s wife. It’s impossibly smart, impossibly invulnerable, impossibly strong. It does things lions never do, like setting traps and attacking vehicles. It hunts them as it was hunted. That’s what makes the film suspenseful.
But while the lion functions in part as an antagonist, it’s also a parallel, or double. The creature goes rogue because poachers killed its pride. It’s lost its loved ones, just as Nate has.
It’s not an accident that the movie shows viewers more natural, and lovable, lions. It wants us on the big cat’s size. We’re not supposed to forget that lions in general, and this one in particular, are more victims of humans than victimizers.
My favorite moment in the movie occurs when Martin sets a trap to harm the lion badly. Just before he does his worst, he tells it, “Sorry, boy.” It’s not an ironic quip; he means it. He loves lions. Harming the creature, even in self-defense, is no triumph.
Sympathy for the Not a Hunter
The movie isn’t about manly victory over nature red in tooth and claw in part because that’s not who the lion is. But it’s also in part because it’s not who Nate is.
Idris Elba gives a wonderful performance as a guy trapped in an action movie who is absolutely not an action star. Nate doesn’t want to hug even the friendly lion. He is not a crack shot. He’s a doctor, not a commando. He wants to protect his kids; he’s brave; he knows how to care for wounds. Those are useful skills, but they don’t make him a match for a killer lion in any sense, as he’s well aware.
The difference with the recent film Prey is stark. Naru, the star of that movies, is a hunter, who fights and plots. Nate’s just a guy, with an appealing air of rumpled haplessness. When you look in his eyes you don’t see cunning or viciousness. You mostly see worry, baffled hope, and desperation.
And you also see love. Which the film, in a rather brilliant conclusion, turns into a weapon.
Sympathy, But Not Empowerment
Prey, The Princess, The Reef: Stalked and action movies in general are about empowerment. The apparently weak protagonist fights much superior opponents and defeats them as you cheer. It’s exhilarating. it makes you feel you’ve defeated evil.
Beast seems like it should be that sort of movie. But it isn’t really. The lion isn’t evil, and the progaonist isn’t exactly the one that overcomes it anyway. Nate isn’t even really trying to fight for victory. He’s trying, to get his kids to safety, and to heal.
Since Nate and his children are linked to the lion’s family, I think it’s fair to say that the movie is, quietly, hoping for better things for big cats as well as for humans. Which is the beast may depend on where you’re standing. But either way, we’re all on the planet together.
First published August 2022.
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