Tuesday, 12 August 2008

Beowulf

Lowdown: A grandiose Lord of the Rings type tale told using computer game animation.
Review:
A new take on Beowulf? Do we really need another Bear-Wolf after the dreadful 1999 version featuring Christopher Lambert? Let’s be honest, the guy should have retired after the original Highlander; and you will be right in assuming that as a direct result my expectations of the new Beowulf have been very were low indeed.
The 2007 model Beowulf takes place in Denmark at around the time the Roman Empire decided to implement Christianity in order to improve its rule. Uncle Anthony Hopkins is the old King of Denmark, a very successful veteran of wars who builds a great hall to celebrate his victories in a very visceral and explicit way. However, a monster called Grendel that roams around Hopkins’ capital city cannot stand the noise and attacks; it leaves carnage behind and exposes Hopkins’ big cover up: the elderly king does not have an heir to take his place, estranged as he is with his beautiful and young wife (Robin Wright Penn). You may as well say the king is cursed.
Hopkins decides that enough is enough, and announces he would give half his treasures away to whoever gets rid of Grendel. And Beowulf heeds: together with a band of ferocious heroes he crosses the seas at great peril to face Grendel.
As we learn more about Beowulf we start feeling that he is, indeed, a ferocious hero that does not hesitate the put life and limb at risk if potential glory is at hand. However, we also sense that glory is of utmost importance to Beowulf, so important that some wrong doing in the way to glory is perfectly acceptable.
Beowulf quickly encounters Grendel, and living up to his word manages to get rid of it. However, vengeance comes quickly when the super monster that is Grendel’s mother (Angelina Jolie) strikes back while showing no mercy. Now Beowulf has to face this much greater challenge; will he stand up to it or will he fall for the temptations of power?
Unlike its previous incarnation, the new Beowulf film is not lacking in the plot department. It deals with some interesting motifs and deals with them well: in a similar way to Lord of the Rings, Beowulf’s characters fall for the temptation of power and believe they will use their power for good when, in fact, they end up doing the opposite; by the time they realize their mistakes it’s too late, and thus even the mightiest fall. Beowulf also reminds us that history repeats itself and that mistakes done in the past will be repeated unless we are powerful enough to realize their potency and to suspend our thirst for power. When the end credits came up and the name Neil Gaiman of Stardust glory popped with writing credit things become clearer; I had identified the source of potency in Beowulf’s story.
While the story side of things is on the better side of average, Beowulf’s execution into a film is severely lacking. The main thing about Beowulf the film is not its plot or its characters/actors but rather the way it was filmed. Director Robert Zemeckis was always into exploring new technologies at the price of quality film making (e.g., Who Framed Roger Rabbit); in Beowulf, Zemeckis follows up on where he left with Polar Express. Thus Beowulf is shot with real actors wearing motion capturing equipment on key areas of their bodies, which are then translated into computer animation. The problem is that while some of the computer animation looks stunning and some of it looks authentic some of the time, neither happens all of the time. Most of the time we’re stuck with a picture that looks like something coming directly out of the computer gaming scene, where motion capture is widely used as a cheap way of generating relatively sophisticated animation. The key problem is with movement: because there are no motion capturing facilities to capture everything taking place with a moving human, especially facial gestures, characters appear very jerky and viewers’ attention is diverted from where it should be in the first place. Doesn’t sound like much, but it’s very annoying!
It’s important to stress that Beowulf was prepared with a 3D presentation in mind, probably in IMAX theaters. Maybe it works in 3D; given that I only got to watch the DVD I can’t say that I know nor care.
Worst scene:
Despite being an animation film, its horror elements mean Beowulf is not a kids’ film. There is also some sexuality/nudity involved, with Jolie in particular, but because of the nature of the animation it doesn’t feel erotic. Still, for some elusive reason, the film adopts a double standard when it comes to sexuality.
In the fight scene between Beowulf and Grendel, Beowulf decides to go naked in order to defeat the monster in its own terms after others failed to do so using sword and spear. The lengths with which Beowulf the film goes about hiding Beowulf the character’s private parts from us viewers are nothing short of amazing and often more laughable than the similar yet intentional Austin Powers jokes.
Why was that so necessary? It’s certainly very distracting.
Overall: Rating Beowulf comes down to the balance between its good story and its annoying execution, which I suspect would vary a lot with personal preferences. My personal approach is to be very generous and grant Beowulf 3 out of 5 stars.

4 comments:

Uri said...

English students around the world may hate Beowulf (think Pere Goriot), but we have at least two reasons to like it – Neutron Star (and the other Crashlander stories) and the Legacy of Heorot.

Moshe Reuveni said...

I had to look Pere Goriot up to realize you're talking about Abba Guryo. I suspect Beowulf is even worse because it's not really English but rather old English.
Anyway, I can't say I remember much of Neutron Star, but the film definitely did remind me of Legacy of Harot. What I'm wondering about is the loyalty of the new version to the original; not that I care as I will never bother with the original, but I'm still curious.

Uri said...

I thought it was Pere Guriot, and stupid Amazon didn't know enough to get me on the right track. I almost wrote it in Hebrew.

And since I hadn't read the poem (it's a poem, right?) or seen the movie, I can't really answer that.

In fact, all I know of this tale is Emmanuel Lotem's note at the beginning of Grendel (one of the stories in Neutron Star).

Moshe Reuveni said...

And all I know came from a Time Magazine article discussing the revival Beowulf's book sales some 10 years ago. According to Time, it appears as though it had become trendy to explore one's heritage.
And then there's the Lambert film version...