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 DVD.
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
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
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
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
Director: Robert Zemeckis
Ray Winstone, Crispin Glover, Angelina Jolie, John Malkovich, Anthony
Hopkins, Robin Wright Penn
Deleted scenes, making-of
Damned good visual effects, yet the
people look a little creepy
Dolby Digital 5.1
DVD RELEASE DATE
February 26, 2008