Monday, November 19, 2007
The blurb at the start of the IMAX 3D version of Beowulf promised “the ultimate movie experience,” and I was hoping it would be – of its type, of course. After all, what better way to watch an epic action adventure scripted by graphic novelist Neil Gaiman than as a three-dimensional image on a four-story screen?
Beowulf is entertaining enough that I didn’t mind having spent a Sunday morning on it, but it was hardly a revelation. Some scenes, like one of a warrior galloping across a burning bridge just ahead of the flames, had me gripping my armrests, but I kept wondering why director Robert Zemeckis had gone to all that trouble to make things feel hyper-real with 3D cameras and CGI imagery only to shoot his actors in that motion capture mode that makes everyone look like a plastic action figure.
The director used the same technique in the creepily expressionless Polar Express. The technology has gotten somewhat better since – people’s eyes don’t look as dead -- but the cast of Beowulf still looks like a bunch of refugees from a Botox carpet bombing.
The 3D amps up the camp factor, as spears protrude to what feels like an inch or two from your eye. It also exaggerates the way distance changes perspective, separating an image into a series of unnaturally distinct planes. And the picture gets a little blurry every time the camera swoops or swirls, which it does a lot, giving me vertigo whenever it goes on too long. It’s as if John Candy’s Dr. Tongue, the character who simulated 3D on SCTV by swooping things right up to the camera and then away again, were in charge of the cinematography.
The screenplay supersizes the Old English legend, a pretty straightforward tale of heroism from a highly militaristic age. A young warrior named Beowulf conquers Grendel, the demon who’s been terrorizing King Hrothgar’s Denmark. Then Beowulf kills Grendel’s even more fearsome mother and a bloodthirsty dragon that shows up a little later, like the bonus round on a video game. Beowulf is killed for his trouble, but he dies a hero, his fame assured.
The screenplay, which was cowritten by Gaiman and Roger Avary, Quentin Tarantino’s writing partner on early movies like Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, gives us a compromised hero and a pitiable monster, updating the 10th century fable for the 21st century with lines like: “We men are the monsters now.”
In this version, Grendel has major Daddy issues that explain his hatred of the king and his men, Beowulf is plagued by a guilty conscience, and the Danes are more hard-partying frat boys than they are the self-sacrificing warriors of the original. Swilling beer and harassing barmaid, they’re hardly admirable as they carouse in a new mead hall their king calls “a place of merriment, joy, and fornication.” So when the horrific-looking Grendel, the original party-pooper, rampages through that hall, tossing drunken warriors into the air while dripping gelatinous slobber, like a mastiff on steroids, you’re more fascinated by the verisimilitude of his flayed, misshapen body than you are put off by the gore.
Grendel’s formidable mother (Angelina Jolie) is also a trip. She’s not on the screen much, but the camera makes the most of every second, hugging her tight while she rises slowly up out of the water or circles seductively around Beowulf, purring promises in the same vaguely Translyvanian-sounding accent she rolled out for Alexander.
Jolie looks unreal enough without the help of motion capture technology. With it, she’s positively extraterrestrial, and she’s wearing nothing but a rather elegant tail, stiletto heels, and a kind of molten gold that drips slowly down her superhuman body. It’s an inspired piece of stunt casting, and it’s echoed – though it can’t be matched – by the equal-opportunity performance of the buff body double who does the acting for Beowulf (Ray Winstone provides the voice), who strips down for Beowulf’s big battle with Grendel. The technology is the real star here, but the naked bodies probably helped make Beowulf the best-selling movie in theaters on its opening weekend.
With its grimly gorgeous settings, faux-archaic speech, frequent and brutal hand-to-hand combat, embattled royalty and mythical creatures, Beowulf will probably remind you at times of Lord of the Rings. And that’s too bad for Beowulf, which is much thinner gruel than Peter Jackson’s masterpiece.
Still worth seeing, if you’re a fan of this kind of story. But hardly the ultimate movie experience.