Wednesday, November 28, 2007
In Theaters: Beowulf
Before I start things off, with the holiday shopping season upon us, I would like to point out that anything you buy from the various Amazon links on this site will give me a small commission, and that would be appreciated as expenses are piling up. I only harp on this because I have yet to actually see a single sale from this, and though there's no penalty for a lack of activity it is rather embarassing.
Most of the hubbub about BEOWULF, positive and negative, has revolved around the novel method of computer animation used to make the film, resulting in highly photorealistic CGI characters that bear a bizarre, uncanny-valley-treading resemblance to the actors playing them even though we’re not actually seeing said actors. Also it’s in 3D and IMAX in places that have such things. To some, this means thrills and visual wonderment, to others, the further degredation of true cinema in the name of video game plotlessness, or something like that. I tend to tune people like that out when they get going. Best way to get through life. Anyway, there’s been very little discussion of the film’s story and substance (with the former side not caring and the latter assuming there isn’t any.) But this is, after all, a film with a script by the usually-great Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary, the less-famous writer of PULP FICTION, and even with the talented-but-let’s-not-make-a-big-deal-of-it Robert Zemeckis at the helm this isn’t the average holiday fantasy cash-in. (For starters, there’s pretty much no sequel potential, and if you think that’s spoiling anything you need to take English Lit. again.)
BEOWULF departs radically from the original myth, as retellings often do, and does so in the service of a fable of sorts about power and corruption and heroism and gold and femininity, among other things. In the midst of this there’s plenty of bone-crunching old-school heroic action, some nice monsters, and Angelina Jolie not-quite-naked-but-close-enough. It’s a really interesting mix, and it mostly works. It perhaps could have been more, but I have to admire what it does right.
Most of the action of the film takes place in the mead hall of King Hrothgar (Anthony Hopkins), which is swiftly closed after an attack by the man-eating misshapen monster Grendel (Crispin Glover), who has sensitive ears and is driven to rage by the sound of merry-making. Enter Beowulf (Ray Winstone), fabled hero and leader of a band of brave warriors, who promises to slay the demon, and also has eyes on Hrothgar’s young wife Wealthow (Robin Wright Penn). The hero of the Geats manages to kill Grendel after a long struggle, but soon finds he must confront the beast’s mother (Angelina Jolie). However, the she-demon manages to take a pleasing form (see above) and make our hero an offer he has trouble refusing...
Any literary type can tell you this is where the story goes off track. The original BEOWULF saga is, like most of these things, an episodic affair; Beowulf kills Grendel, Grendel’s mother, and finally a dragon in a battle that leaves him mortally wounded. A nice three-act structure, but Gaiman and Avary have something different in mind- the bargain with Grendel’s mother and the hints about her role in Hrothgar’s life turn the story into one where the hero must overcome his own lust for power and glory, not to mention gold. (Grendel’s mother’s lair is strewn with treasures, and she herself first appears looking a bit like Shirley Eaton in GOLDFINGER.)
The end result of all this fiddling is that the story is actually much more coherent than the myth that inspired it; we can’t hold that against the original, which was written to be sung in snatches based on whatever the audience wanted to hear and how much they’d had to drink that night, but the film’s story is pretty memorable in itself and its thematic material is handled very well- imagery is juggled in a way that, while not exactly subtle, isn’t quite the equivalent of a sledgehammer. And even though the film changes a lot, the raucous Old English atmosphere is there- a couple of the characters actually slip into the old tongue, there’s a lot of boozing and wenching, and a certain dark, skull-cracking humor often crops up.
So what do I think of the animation? Well, I didn’t get to see it in full 3D (it may not have been such a good idea to harp on this point in the advertising, since IMAX theaters are still pretty spread out), but it looks good- the level of detail is enough that the characters are expressive and believable, and at times the photorealism is outright astonishing. Of course, if you’re not going to stylize your human characters at all, I have to wonder why not just use live actors against CG backgrounds, but maybe this was easier. Not all of the faces are equally convincing- Hrothgar looks pretty much like they photographed Anthony Hopkins against a blue screen (or are they all green now?), while some of the extras wouldn’t have been out of place in the third SHREK movie. The monsters really own this one; Grendel is a shambling, vaguely childlike nightmare, the dragon in the third act is a beaut, and well, a practically-nude Angelina Jolie, rendered with extra care by animators who are no doubt mindful of the fact that making this woman look unsexy is a capital crime in many parts of the world, is a sight to behold.
There are two issues I have with this film overall. One is that the budget of this film no doubt forced them to go for a PG-13 rating, and even though it really pushes the limits of that classification, it still feels like they’re stopping short of something. Let’s face it, the world of Beowulf was R-rated from the start, and the way the film dances around showing us too much seems forced at times. The best example of this is Beowulf’s fight with Grendel- since the monster has no arms or armor, Beowulf insists on fighting on equal terms, meaning he conducts the battle in the nude, and though the filmmakers can comfortably show him from the rear they take great pains to have various objects strategically placed throughout the sequence to avoid giving us full frontal. There’s a decent amount of blood and grue, but not quite as much as you’d expect, and of course certain parts of Ms. Jolie remain covered in gold throughout. A bit of a shame there, and I’d almost expect an R or unrated version to surface on DVD eventually but I wonder if they’d have spent the money to animate it. However, the real big problem is that the story Gaiman and Avary have crafted gets very glum after a while, and a lot of the wicked humor of the first half just drains away. The second part just isn’t as enjoyable as a result, and doesn’t quite reach the level of tragedy it seems to be aiming for.
The word that keeps coming back to me is “interesting.” This is not the best thing you can write about a movie, obviously, but BEOWULF turned out to be smarter than I expected it to be, and that I’m still thinking about it has to be a good thing. I think there’s a problem with my ratings system- I’m giving this a lower grade than 300, but think it might actually be a better movie. This probably means I gave the former too high a grade to start with, but that was my impression at the time and I think I was able to support it, so- the thing’s flawed. Of course, so is every other gradiated ratings system for movie reviewing, but we put them there for you to look at, and I’m sure it’s not completely useless. Perhaps anything beyond the simple “thumbs up”/”thumbs down”, etc., is too much. So I’ll just say that I solidly and confidently recommend BEOWULF- it’s a fun action movie with a better story than most and has plenty of eye candy. See it while I take a wrench to the Club’s quality-meter.
Written by Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary
Directed by Robert Zemeckis