The story of Beowulf is most likely familiar to anyone who had to endure reading an English translation back in high school English literature class. The original tale is estimated to date back to the 11th, possibly the 8th century with the oldest manuscript going back to 1010. It is a story of heroism, adventure with a modicum of sex thrown in just for good measure. While many of the translations are barely readable the basics of the story has proven lasting qualities. The latest in the very long line of film adaptations of this classic is aptly named ‘Beowulf’ from director Robert Zemeckis with a screenplay by Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary. All of the required elements are present and this would make for a great action flick without any gimmicks but the production team felt one was necessary anyway. The movie is presented in motion capture photography. With this technique the actors perform their magic wearing little sensors that pick up the motions. These are feed into a computer and a three dimensional model is created in cyber space. This can then be manipulated and tweaked by the director and his team of computer geniuses. Both three and two dimensional versions were created. The 3D was released in IMAX theaters while the 2D variation has now made it to DVD thanks to the good folks over at Paramount Pictures.
Robert Zemeckis is equally well known for his successes as he is for his flops. What this means is the man is willing to take chances and branch out away from the safe Hollywood path. His works range from children’s stories to ghostly horror tales. His biggest hit was the new Christmas classic, ‘Polar Express’ which was also filmed in the same Motion Capture method used here. He is also responsible for ‘Bordello of Blood’ but a man of his talent and vision can be forgiven for even something like that. In this film Zemeckis paints on his cinematic canvas with broad strokes. This is an action flick and unnecessary exposition, human emotions and any possible spiritual connections are glossed over. What you get is a brutal world of sex and violence; just the thing to pull in audiences especially when they can see it in three dimensions. Even in this two cut the action comes at you fast and consistently. The DVD has the ‘Director’s Cut’. Mostly this just means the reinstatement of some gratuitous nudity and gore. One of the main reasons this film was made in Motion Capture is this makes it easier to translate into a 3D version. The objects can be more readily manipulated in the computer than would be possible in a standard editing bay. This technique results in something referred to as ‘photorealistic animation’. It looks almost real, far more realistic than anything made with regular CGI. It is also better than the older method of rotoscoping where a life action film is used to trace an animation over it. For an example of this take a look at ‘Through a Scanner Darkly’.
While this is one of the best techniques available with current computer hardware and software it is far from perfect. The characters look almost as if they were made of wax. I remember seeing the trailers for this film on television and for a moment wasn’t sure if I was actually see the actor I thought was on the screen. There is also a loss of something very important, the nuance of the performances. The computer is good with the over all replication of the action but there is a loss of the details of facial expressions or little instances of body language. If you look at the scenes with Angelina Jolie, after her nudity is noticed that is, and compare it to her performance in something like ‘A Mighty Heart’ and you’ll get the point. In ‘Heart’ just look at her face; Jolie has such amazing control over her expressions that it makes the performance. Little movements of the eyes or lips are what make her the actress she is. In this film those subtle touches are gone. The computer can make a stunning body but the little things about the face that define our humanity are lost. In the theaters the film garnered a PG-13 rating. The MPAA board must have taken this as a regular animated feature and went soft on them. If that version was presented in regular live action it would have been a strong R. It must have been a simple decision for the executives in charge. They could take the PG-13 rating for the theaters and get a larger teen audience. They could then release a more mature cut on DVD as was the case.
The script by Gaiman and Avary reflects the lack of humanity with the Motion Capture method. It gets right to the point from the start of the picture. The opening scene is in a mead hall filled with rowdy, drunk Scandinavians. The hall was recently commissioned by the king of Denmark, King Hrothgar (Anthony Hopkins) for his loyal men. The noise is so great that it disturbs the local monster Grendel (Crispin Glover) who pops over to destroy the revelers. The King challenges the creature to fight him but Grendel looks at the king and runs off. Back at his lair Grendel is admonished by his mother (Angelina Jolie) for his actions. She is afraid that his attack will result in retribution from the humans. She is right since the King as put a bounty on Grendel’s head to the sum of half the gold in the kingdom. Beowulf (Ray Winstone) and his men have just arrived from Greatland and decide to take up the challenge. The King’s advisor, Unferth (John Malkovich) is dubious of Beowulf being able to live up to the task. The king offers Beowulf his prized golden drinking horn taken from a dragon if he can kill the creature. Beuwulf has been at sea a long time and would much rather have a shot at the princess Wealthow (Robin Wright Penn). That night Beowulf orders his men to make as much noise as possible. He undresses to make the fight with the unarmed Grendel a fair fight and to give the ladies in the audience some eye candy. It is only fair since later on the guys get a look at Jolie in a similar state of undress. The fight ensues and the mortally wounded Grendel goes back home to mommy. She vows revenge against the man who killed her only child. She brutally kills all of Beowulf’s men except is second in command Wiglaf (Brendan Gleeson). They confront Grendel’s mother who appears as a beautiful woman. She strikes a deal with Beowulf. In exchange for another son she will help him become king.
The crew of this film was able to get away with this story since almost everybody has either read it in English class or seen one of the many other treatments of it. They did throw in the kingdom for sex routine. This plays to the 21st century audience far better than having Beowulf battle and kill the mother. The basic theme of prejudice both on the side of the humans and the creatures is mostly loss here amidst the action. If you want a story that you can discuss over coffee after watching the film look elsewhere; if you want constant action this is for you.
The Director’ Cut DVD has Dolby 5.1 audio and 2.35 anamorphic video. The extras include: