Genre: Animation, Action, Adventure
Play time: 1h 55min
Director: Robert Zemeckis
Screenwriters: Neil Gaiman, Roger Avary
Starring: Ray Winstone, Crispin Glover, Angelina Jolie
Trudging my way through Beowulf — the epic poem version — is one of my more unpleasant high school memories. My God, it’s boring; significant for establishing a bunch of enduring archetypes, but no less tiresome for it. The good news, I knew, was that Beowulf as it stood couldn’t possibly become an expensive tentpole blockbuster, since there’s nothing there — Beowulf beats up Grendel, Grendel’s mom, and a dragon, and dies. The end. When I learned that Roger Avary and Neil Gaiman were writing the screenplay for Robert Zemeckis, I became cautiously optimistic. If anyone can build on the skeleton of a story that is Beowulf in interesting ways, I thought, it’s them.
So what do we have here? As I suspected, we have something far more thoughtful and nuanced than the literally ancient source material; something that gives us the hideous Grendel in all his glory, casts Angelina Jolie as Grendel’s mother, and still manages to tell this story with a straight face and take the character of Beowulf seriously. It’s also a rumination on the meaning of heroism, with a weird but fascinating and dead-serious anti-Christian streak. Oh, and it’s a spectacular, eye-popping three-dimensional spectacle.
The headline-making look of the film turns out to be both a strength and a weakness. For those who skipped The Polar Express and thus have not been introduced to Robert Zemeckis’s latest obsession, Beowulf uses motion-capture technology to insert modified versions of real actors into an entirely computer-generated universe, and advanced 3-D — not the red-and-blue kind — to make that universe immersive. The consensus seems to be that this is best-experienced in the ginormous-screen IMAX format.
The 3-D works great, and the format seems to have finally moved beyond novelty value to become a legitimate storytelling tool. It works in ways both quotidian (the scenes of revelry in Hrothgar’s Mead Hall have a real, almost tangible scope) and spectacular (I thought that dragon was going to kill me where I sat); it’s not distracting or headache-inducing, and it’s certainly not ugly. The mo-cap meets with more mixed success, as there is still the distinct feeling that Zemeckis is trying to race ahead of the technology he has to work with. There’s been progress, and the characters in Beowulf are nowhere near as off-putting as the creepy quasi-humans who populated The Polar Express; Ray Winstone’s Beowulf, in particular, is the closest animation has gotten to photorealism. But some of the others — most notably Robin Wright Penn’s Wealthow and Angelina Jolie’s Mother (yes, for whatever reason it’s the women) — remain stuck somewhere deep in the uncanny valley. It’s unfortunate that such a polished (not to mention expensive) film occasionally looks like one of those cheesy cinema clips you might see between levels of a video game.
The other problem is that for all its pretensions of technological ultra-sophistication, Beowulf still looks very much like a fancy, colorful cartoon, which sometimes creates a dissonance with its surprisingly heady ambitions. There’s a genuine poignancy to the second half of the film, as Beowulf’s early swagger is replaced by a dawning realization that his legendary reputation is basically manufactured and that he is actually kind of a fraud. Along the same lines as Spider-Man 2, the film argues that the world needs heroes, and that the heroes it picks don’t have it easy; it adds the the utterly fascinating suggestion that Christianity has invidiously replaced our heroes with martyrs.
Avery and Gaiman are smart enough to place a layer of mystery over the mostly straightforward story; what they did to Grendel’s Mother will likely be ridiculed, but it adds satisfyingly creepy overtones to the action (Alan Silvestri’s haunting score helps). The rendering of Grendel himself is unexpected, weird and brilliant. And all the wizardry hasn’t dulled Zemeckis’s instincts for rousing pop filmmaking; the set pieces have genuine excitement and glee.
I do wish Zemeckis had bitten the bullet and made an R-rated movie; he and his screenwriters insist on having Beowulf fight Grendel naked, per the story, but the PG-13 forces the film to perform some truly goofy and distracting Austin Powers-style contortions. And while the violence does push the rating’s envelope, the film still holds back. Even with the PG-13, though, this isn’t your great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandmother’s Beowulf. It’s something a lot more complicated, and a lot more interesting.