November 19, 2007

Beowulf (11/18/07)

Lettergrade: D

I pretty much hated Beowulf right from the first scene. I know that's not very constructive, but it's how I feel. I think I was expecting a real kick-ass, sword-and-sorcery popcorn flick, but that's not quite what this is. There _is_ some magic and swordplay afoot, but much of the story is fairly dreary and dull. Conversely, when the action scenes do take place, they're kind of shrill and nightmarishly unpleasant to sit through. All this is exacerbated by the fact that it's computer animation (based on motion capture), and many of the CG characters, who often look almost exactly like the actors voicing them, don't have a lot of articulate expression. I don't know if the movie would work better if it had been staged with real actors performing with CG monsters or not, but at the very least there would be the subtle nuance of human interaction that guys like Anthony Hopkins and John Malkovich have spent their lifetimes perfecting, and that no digital reproduction has yet been able to match.

Indeed, several of the characters look and behave pretty much like gristled up extras from the Shrek universe, with the key differences being that they drink, get horny, and kill things in graphic ways. Curiously, there are many lengthy dialogue scenes that take place in a mead hall which, one would think, might lend itself better to just building the sets and shooting the actors in costume rather than going to such lengths to replicate such things anyway. Nevertheless, when smackdown time arrives, the digital environment does permit our heroes to perform amazing feats that no stuntman would subject himself to, and allows for dynamic shots that no cinematographer could ever shoot. The movie's aim is spectacle, and while it is perhaps a bit underwhelming, you have to give it points for being unique.

The movie is based on a 9th century poem that I wrote a report on in 7th grade, but do not remember. It starts with the monster Grendel (played by Crispin Glover) attacking king Anthony Hopkins' mead hall somewhere in bumfuck Denmark. Hopkins knows exactly what to do: He calls Beowulf and his entourage, who are known throughout the land as ace monster exterminators. Beowulf (Ray Winstone) is a hero of egomaniacal nature... as in love with the legends that have accumulated about himself as anyone. I was amused that he would always shout his own name while kicking something's ass, ala the O'Doyle family in Billy Madison. Beowulf quickly dispenses with Grendel (whom, it turns out, resulted from Hopkins slipping the pork-saber to some kind of sea-demon years earlier). The next night, however, the village is attacked by something far more wicked and foul: Angelina Jolie, bringing back her Count Chocula accent from 2004's Alexander, and her "crazy bitch" persona from everything else.

Beowulf goes to her lair, the entrance of which is designed to look like a dark vagina, but is overcome when something that looks exactly like Jolie emerges from the water instead. The naked-but-nippleless creature offers Beowulf a deal: If he performs the sexual act with her, she will turn him into a king more powerful than all others. It has been established that the prospect of nookie is too great for our vainglorious hero to resist, and he succumbs to the dark creature's promises; like Hopkins before him, and Brad Pitt during the production of Mr. And Mrs. Smith. The second half of the story picks up some 50 years later, with an elderly Beowulf having to deal with the consequences of his one-night stand (a really pissed off dragon).

There are certainly compelling thematic points about the nature of heroism, and how the lust for power, wealth, and mad-monkey sex tragically undo several men of great strength in this story. I was especially interested in Beowulf's No. 2, played by Brendan Gleeson, who is endlessly devoted to his boss, but recognizes his flaws. Nevertheless, the execution is such an unpleasant combination of 'wooden' and 'horrific' that there isn't a whole lot to enjoy here, despite the thematic food-for-thought that seems a little more meaningful in hindsight than it did to me in context of the picture.

Director Robert Zemeckis made some of the most treasured popcorn movies of my youth (the Back To The Future trilogy and Who Framed Roger Rabbit?) before moving into more mature pictures that I admired and studied throughout high school and college (Forrest Gump and Cast Away). Lately, it seems that Zemeckis has lost his goddamn mind. His film prior to this one was The Polar Express, which, like Beowulf, boldly experimented with using motion capture to grab an actor's physical performance and map it onto a CG character in a CG environment. The result was interesting because it allowed Tom Hanks to "play" many different characters in the film of all shapes and sizes. Despite the creepy, dead soullessness in the eyes of all the CG actors, there was a unique and optimistic sense of magic that really kept the movie going.

Beowulf isn't that lucky. The overall atmosphere is too frequently sabotaged whenever anyone steps into a close-up, and you're reminded that you're not looking at actors using their craft to convince you that they're living through something extraordinary, but instead at a computer simulation that attempts the same thing. Beowulf is an amazing use of the technology available to filmmakers of our day, but I suspect it would be more fruitfully used as an enhancement for tried and true techniques, rather than a replacement.

1 comment:

  1. Beowulf is one of the books I teach high school seniors and my timing stinks this year. My students believe that Beowulf slept with Angelina Jolie and the dragon is their child. Whew . . . I guess you can't sell a movie in Hollywood these days unless someone gets to sleep with Jolie. I thought the original was good enough to hold our interest. I will show your comments to my students. Of course, they won't think you are too cool. Thanks for your thoughts. Some of us out here like good story and your need to just keep plugging.
    Teacher in Suburban DC