Idris Elba Faces Off With a Lion in Update to Jaws Formula
DIRECTOR: BALTASAR KORMÁKUR/2022
Must calling a movie “formulaic” always be an insult?
“Formulaic” implies familiar (instead of innovative), structured (as opposed to organic), and predictable (therefore unsurprising), but none of those descriptors are flaws unless you want them to be.
Case in point: Beast. Idris Elba is a father vacationing with his daughters (Iyana Halley, Leah Jeffries) in South Africa, the homeland of their late wife and mother. The three are hoping to reconnect with her memory and with each other, and an old family friend (Sharlto Copley) is taking them on a private tour of the South African bush, even through areas restricted to tourists—what could go wrong?
What makes Beast worthy of a big screen trip is its frights are actually fun to watch with an audience.
I can almost hear you muttering, “Famous last words.” This action thriller is just Jaws with a lion, plus enough tweaks to prevent plagiarism accusations. (Halley’s Jurassic Park tank top in an early scene serves as a Works Cited for that film’s influence.) Unlike those Spielberg/Universal collabs, Beast clocks in at a tight 93 minutes, which is all you would need for those shark and dinosaur fright fests if you cut the subtext. That would be a problem if this were a film with awards aspirations, but Beast knows what it is—a 90-minute adventure built around a charismatic movie star—and the formula it needs to follow:
- Promise a violent threat.
- Introduce likable (though not necessarily three-dimensional) characters with a vaguely relatable emotional arc.
- Bring characters into proximity with the threat.
- Add enough complications so that when the audience thinks things can’t get worse, they do.
- Equip the characters to overcome those complications so they can kill or contain the threat and sunset their emotional arc.
While I’m oversimplifying every monster movie ever made, I’m not not describing Beast. It follows its genre expectations to such a T we may as well be watching Elba hit checkpoint after checkpoint to level up in a video game. Like Chekhov’s Gun, every piece of information introduced in the first 30 minutes is part of a toolkit that must be used up by the credits because anything extra would feel like a tease. It’s smart enough to not weigh down its simple premise with forced ideas, and it doesn’t resolve the problem of a homicidal lion with a borderline-magical twist for the sake of an inauthentic theme.
Though it provides no new insight into his inclination toward projects centered around large animated cats, Beast is proof a little Idris goes a long way. He’s more capable than this thin script, but he’s also its greatest asset. Not just anyone can convince an audience he’s a dedicated dad and accidental action hero—just ask Mel Gibson, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, Liam Neeson, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Will Smith, Denzel Washington, Bruce Willis, or anyone else you think fits the description. (No disrespect to Roy Scheider, who blew up that shark with brains instead of braun.)
But what makes Beast worthy of a big screen trip is its frights are actually fun to watch with an audience. (The African landscapes and night scenes will look better at a theater than on an iPhone, too.) Formula movies can lose tension over time because the people watching are too smart for them—just ask last month’s movie that prompted conversations about anti-poaching practices in Africa, Where the Crawdads Sing—but director Baltasar Kormákur knows how to keep us unsettled. When Elba fights off the lion with an empty rifle beneath his car that won’t start, we’re right beside him. We weave from side to side under the vehicle looking for the lion, and we feel how small this corner of safety is because there are few cuts in the action. A short runtime may mean less time to build suspense, but an R rating means more violence. Like our characters, we are looking over our shoulders the whole film, which is why I heard plenty of gasps throughout my screening.
So call Beast “formulaic” if you wish. After all, it does star a familiar actor, sticks to its genre’s structure, and predictably makes an audience squirm. But Beast excels at its formula, and that’s only an insult if you want it to be.