The Screening Room
By Bill Kallay
NOTE: This is the same review as done on the "Beowulf" DVD. Picture and sound quality notes have been added.
Beowulf is a badass. He’s the type of hero who looks for a good fight. Nothing gets him more pumped up than to bust some Grendel heads. He doesn’t ask for more for more, please. He punches and slices, then doesn’t bother to answer questions later. This guy is made for action.
“Beowulf” is now available on a Director’s Cut edition Blu-ray disc.
I think I bought a paperback version of “Beowulf” sometime after high school. I didn’t have a class where I had to read it. I figured that since it was a majestic tale and a classic that many of our modern stories and movies steal from, I might as well read it.
I got through maybe fifty pages.
Now some 20+ years later, director Robert Zemeckis has tackled this old literature, and pumped it up with modern day storytelling and visual effects. In one sense, he’s made it palatable for action junkies. Would Zemeckis entertain me with this legend?
Essentially Zemeckis’ version condenses a lot of action and macho heroics into a reasonable running time. Beowulf is a brute and one of those tall tale type of heroes that we could only imagine in our minds. Seven foot tall and eyes of steel, the Wulf becomes a hybrid of the heroes of “Braveheart,” “Gladiator,” “300,”and “Bad Boys.” He moves quickly, likes to beat the living goop out of mystical creatures, and loves to walk around naked. His moves and stares are covered in quick pans and tracking shots that would make Michael Bay blush. The Wulf is pure brute and proud of it. He really likes to boast about himself. Beowulf wouldn’t have a problem hanging out at the gym four hours a day, seven days a week. “Look at these pecks. Tomorrow (sounding winded), I’m gonna work on the triceps. Dudes! I AM BEOWULF!” His fellow brutes in the weight room would raise their fists and cheer.
Beowulf is played by actor Ray Winstone, who will be appearing in “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.” Winstone is a fine actor and has the vocal talent to pull this story off. He looks nothing like the Beowulf we see on-screen. The other actors in the film, with the exception of Crispin Glover (Grendel), look very much like their digitized counterparts with varying degrees of success. Angelina Jolie (Grendel’s Mother), John Malkovich (Unferth), Anthony Hopkins (Hrothgar), Robin Wright Penn (Wealthow) all look like themselves. They’re just a little creepy looking, and not for the right reasons.
”Beowulf” is tremendously ambitious. It’s amazing to me how Zemeckis and his crew of artists have created the three-dimensional world that Beowulf lives in, all on a small soundstage. The live action portion of the film roughly took 5 weeks total to shoot. The rest of the movie took much longer to make due to the complex digital effects that were added in later. There really is nothing that filmmakers in the caliber of Zemeckis can’t do. The action sequences are incredibly well staged with enough camera moves to make you feel like you’re on an amusement park ride. In many ways, you do feel like you’re inhabiting Beowulf’s world. The question for me is if this is a world I want to visit. Are these characters, whether they’re good or bad, that I want to be associated with?
”Beowulf” doesn’t work for me on several levels, and ultimately, leaves me feeling empty. This isn’t to say that Zemeckis, writers Neil Gaiman & Roger Avary, and the visual effects team haven’t pulled off a great looking and immersive movie. They’ve done a very good job in paring down the original story. But if I don’t care for the characters or as superficial as this may sound, their look, it’s difficult to care for the movie as a whole.
Beowulf is a boaster. He’s a super stud. He’s the high school jock that chicks adore and his buddies love. But his act of being the oh so powerful Beowulf gets old, quick. I think what lacks in his portrayal is a sense of being humble. The great heroes we’ve seen in the past few decades in film are humble and occasionally human. Look at Superman, or Indiana Jones, or Martin Riggs. They’re tough when they need to be, but show at least a little bit of vulnerability (and I’m not suggesting they need to be overly sensitive dudes who bring their girls flowers). Sure, we know Beowulf can kick some serious butt. But he doesn’t show his weakness until the very end of the movie. By that point in time, we don’t care for him. At least I didn’t.
Getting beyond the remarkable visual effects and backgrounds, I have a hard time grasping the purpose of motion capture in this film. I mention this with tremendous respect to Zemeckis and the talented visual effects artists who worked for over two years bringing “Beowulf” to life. It’s easy for a film critic like myself to describe why I don’t like a particular movie, or why I don’t like the “phony” visual effects in another. I can sit here and fling fiery arrows at “Beowulf.” That wouldn’t be fair or right. I can only react to “Beowulf” as I’ve seen it.
The film, with some added emotional depth and less pontificating from Beowulf might’ve worked better as a straight forward animated film. The motion capture, as neat as it is, still feels limiting to me as an audience member. To me, the human characters in this film look soulless. I don’t know how better to explain this. They looked soulless and rather creepy in “The Polar Express,” yet looked good and believable (in a cartoonish manner) in “Monster House.”
The “Beowulf” characters, for the most part, look like they jumped out of a modern video game. Perhaps that’s the purpose of Zemeckis’ recent love for virtual cinema and motion capture. He wants that look and that freedom to shoot what he visualizes. As an audience member, though, I’m finding my focus limited to the eyes and mouth movements of the characters on the screen. I’m focusing on the technique. Part of me really admires what the visual effects can provide for a fantasy like this. The other part me is freaked out by the dead and eerie look of the eyes. The character mouth movement, that of the humans, is a bit unnatural, too.
The characters of Wealthow (Penn) and Unferth (Malkovich) look the most unnatural. With all the detail and design that went into all of the “Beowulf” characters, I was left unmoved based on their appearances. I was concentrating on the coldness of their features more than their actual acting. Hopkins’ portrayal of Hrothgar is good as Hopkins gets, but his character was grotesque (likely on purpose) and not fun to watch.
The most interesting characters and digital effects belong to Grendel and his Mother. Crispin Glover is pretty damned scary to look at in digital form and really elicits the most sympathy of the characters in “Beowulf.” Oddly, he’s a terror and kills a bunch of people, yet we feel sorry for him when he goes back to his mother. His screams of pain are felt and yet frightening. Jolie is good as the mother, and her digitized alter ego is scary and appealing at the same time. This is where the movie works. The acting between Grendel and his Mother is good, and the visual effects of the cave are eerie.
With most of the film, the details of the landscape and Beowulf’s world are extremely well done. This is when the movie rolls. But like a video game where you’re consistently rushing around a 3-D world bombarded by noise and video graphics, the eyes grow tired and fatigued. You end up turning off the game to let your eyes rest, and you wish for real human contact.
Special thanks to Click Communications
Photos: © Paramount Pictures. All rights reserved.
Boldy ambitious, cool to look at, hard to love
Director: Robert Zemeckis
Cast: Ray Winstone, Crispin Glover, Angelina Jolie, John Malkovich, Anthony Hopkins, Robin Wright Penn
HD bonus features
I'm still not wild about the movie, but it sure looks and sounds great on Blu-ray!
Three-dimensional (looking) picture.
Aspect Ratio (2.39:1)
BLU-RAY RELEASE DATE
July 29, 2008