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artisanal film reviews | by maryann johanson

Beowulf (review)

Bring Out Yer Dead

This is the new depth of soulless, heartless, corporate filmmaking Beowulf achieves: it would be a step up to be able to call it pornographic. Pornography at least attempts to engage us, if only on a base level of animal instinct. But this example of the latest “advance” in animation technology is sterile, synthetic, almost completely unengaging on a human level. It’s animated but inanimate.
Director Robert Zemeckis here spent who knows how many tens of millions of dollars in an effort to perfectly simulate, down to the tiniest detail, with meticulous microscopic accuracy… the human face. Because, apparently, no one has informed him of that astonishing Civil War-era technology that can already do the same thing: photography. I’ve heard tell that some years later, toward the end of the 19th century, someone even developed a way to make those still images move. And those moving images, they can — and I know this is astonishing, but it’s true — they can capture all the nuances of emotion that act as evidence of a sentient being alive behind a human face.

As Zemeckis (The Polar Express, Cast Away) surely discovered way too late in the production of Beowulf, there is no number of cleverly rendered laugh lines around the eyes or individually drawn facial hairs or specifically calculated skin pores that can enliven a dead cartoon face. No, wait: you can’t even call Beowulf cartoonish. Cartoons, when they’re done right, are visually metaphoric, symbolic, impressionistic. We don’t look to, say, the stylized visages of Beauty or the Beast or Princess Fiona for the subtle traces of human expression we expect from a photorealistic human face… and animated movies that work don’t tell stories that rely on subtle performances from talented actors. We do look for that here, because the smart script demands finely shaded performances… and we don’t see it. What we see is a bizarre parody of humanity, one that, at quick first glance, might fool you into accepting it as living but that, upon even the most cursory followup, clearly lacks that inner fire that makes us conscious, awake, aware creatures. It’s as if we’re looking at walking corpses trying to fool us into thinking they’re alive.

Why? Why go through all the bother of hooking real, live, warm, breathing, human actors up to sensors, capturing their motion, recording their voices, and translating them into computerized images that, for the most part, look exactly like them (except for the dead eyes and slack facades)? What’s the point? Why not just, you know, film the actors? Honestly, my mind is reeling. I simply don’t get it.

It makes perfectly perfect sense that, if you want to tell a story like this — set in medieval Denmark and featuring places that no longer exist and monsters that never existed at all — that you would want to use the best special FX available to create or re-create those things. And Zemeckis and his team of wizards do that wonderfully. Snowy mountain vistas and ancient castles and dragons are all fine, and would have been impossible to invent or replicate so well without computer assistance. Yes, oh my, the dragon sequence toward the end of the film is truly, truly thrilling, the dragon itself a thing of terrible beauty… but it might as well stand on its own for all that it feels utterly severed from the larger tale, which wants to be about people and their complicated motives and desires. All chance of success there was lost when the real people were rendered — no pun intended — curiously absent.

That’s extra disturbing, in fact, because the intriguing extrapolation of the Beowulf tale of old by screenwriters Neil Gaiman (Stardust) and Roger Avary (The Rules of Attraction) explores the monster Grendel’s (Crispin Glover: What Is It?, Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle) motivation in attacking the ancient Danish kingdom — not to spoil it if you really must see the film, but it involves the king’s (Anthony Hopkins: Slipstream, Bobby) denial of a basic humanity to Grendel, a humanity that he deserves. And the script also expands, from the original AD700 epic poem, on the monster-slayer Beowulf (Ray Winstone: The Departed, Breaking and Entering), granting him flaws and hubrises we have not seen before in the ur-Hero. This is, in the script, a story about human failings and foibles that tries to play itself out across the faces of the characters, yet their humanity has been, ironically, starved out of the final telling by the blank inertness of the very faces we should be riveted by.

It’s an inertness that is compounded by its own self-consciousness. Zemeckis wants to be both gritty and bawdy in his telling, yet he is overly coy about it in all ways. Beowulf insists, for instance, that for their big battle he must face the monster Grendel naked, not just without weapons but without a stitch of clothing. An actual warm-blooded human actor might have sold us on a rash audacity and confident physical prowess that has nothing to do with how exposed Beowulf is either to the monster’s claws or to our eyes. But instead we’re given the peculiarly bashful spectre of a Ken doll jumping around in front of strategically placed swords and crossbeams and such. If that is supposed to remind us of that Austin Powers bit with all the fruit and sausages and such, it accomplishes that. But if it is meant to humanize the hero, it fails — in fact, it does nothing but make us guffaw during what should be one of the most intense and dramatic moments of the film.

I’d love to have seen what a director like, say, Terry Gilliam would have made of this. His version would not, of course, have made good fodder for IMAX and 3D versions and nor the upcoming Beowulf video game. It would have been scaled for people, not for corporate synergy.

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MPAA: rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence including disturbing images, some sexual material and nudity

viewed at a private screening with an audience of critics

official site | IMDb
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  • Joe

    When I went to art school, I was told by our sculpting teacher that the human eye is made uncomfortable by human sculptures that are life sized. There is also a theory that I had heard of (the name of it escapes me now) involving life like robots, suggesting that in the attempt to make them as real to humans as possible, we will reach a threshold, where we are almost completely lifelike, and we would find it unsettling. That is, until they are virtually indistinguishable from a human, they would freak us out.

    That’s what your review reminded me of.

  • Doa766

    but what angelina’s boobs, do they look real? and her butt?

  • Joe, you’re thinking of The Uncanny Valley. Exactly what I thought of as well. Sounds like we’re mired in said valley.

  • Rigby Maguire

    That would be the “uncanny valley.”

    This is an answer to the first post, not the second (in case there was any confusion).

  • Drave

    *chokes on his bagel at Rigby’s comment*

    MaryAnn, I definitely appreciate the complaints you are making, but I feel like you haven’t talked very much about the other aspects of the film. Obviously, you couldn’t get over the uncanny valley, which I totally get. I spent all of Spirits Within thinking “Why didn’t they just make this with real people?” However, what I would like to know is; if you could imagine the exact same film, shot for shot, done with real people, do you think it might have engaged you more? Is the deadness of the virtual actors your only major complaint? If the dead eyes don’t bother me, am I more likely to enjoy it than you did? I’m not saying they won’t bother me, mind you. I do intend to see this, partly to update myself on what CGI is capable of these days, but mostly because I want Hollywood to keep hiring Neil Gaiman to do things, which increases the likelihood of Death: The High Cost of Living finally getting started.

  • Aside from possibly showing (CGI) Angelina Jolie starkers, it doesn’t sound like there’s much to redeem this flick. Might be better off watching the old “Grendel Grendel Grendel” cartoon from 1981:

    http://www.michaelspornanimation.com/splog/?m=200606
    http://www.stomptokyo.com/movies/g/grendelgrendelgrendel.html

  • Johnny

    well I’d be bothered by the whole dead eye thing. My problem with the cgi movement is, as of right now we can upload our faces stick them on our xbox 360’s and play along side with Tiger Woods. Now whats going to happen to the actor, if we have no need for stardom? We can just upload our faces on game systems and play as the hero in video games.

  • Amy

    I love how Terry Gilliam’s name is evoked for every kind of fantasy out there, problem is that Gilliam hasn’t had a great creative thought for years. Brothers Gilliam was a great way to spend the time, wasn’t it? it was about as good as a well made movie as a Wayans Brother flick and as for his Don Quixote, the doc. he made of his trying to get it made shows that his emperor’s robe is just about to be taken off him. You may not have liked Beowulf but Gilliam ain’t all that.

    At least in this movie, we won’t have to contend with seeing Angelina’s increasing lollipop head, old woman hands, stick legs because they’ve added curves to her shrinking frame.

  • MaryAnn

    if you could imagine the exact same film, shot for shot, done with real people, do you think it might have engaged you more?

    Is that not pretty much the gist of my review?

    Is the deadness of the virtual actors your only major complaint?

    That’s like saying, “Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you enjoy the play?”

    Yes, my “only major complaint” is that the entire production is so wrongheaded that it renders the whole thing unwatchable.

    Aside from possibly showing (CGI) Angelina Jolie starkers,

    But it DOESN’T show Angelina Jolie starkers any more than it shows Ray Winstone starkers. The naked bodies are computer graphics, nothing more. But I guess if some men are turned on my women with plastic in their bodies, it’s just one step more to be turned on by bodies that are entirely fake.

    Brothers Gilliam was a great way to spend the time, wasn’t it?

    Yes, it was, actually. I think the film is brilliant.

  • Brad

    Yeah, I kinda decided to give this one a pass the first time I saw the trailer. Not because of the dead eyes thing, or the ever-so-wrongness of TOO-real animation (which I haven’t considered before), but because the trailer just seems to lack…I dunno, passion. Emotion. The lines come off as cheesy, not heroic, certainly not like they came from a saga. Not to mention the fact that not a lot seems to actually HAPPEN during it, but mainly it just feels sterile.

    So Mary Ann (and previous commenters), I’d like to say thanks for putting into words why I responded (or rather, failed to) like I did. This type of animation just feels off somehow. “Sterile” is the best word I can come up with to describe it, and that’s not really a compliment for an adaptation of one of the premier stories ever.

  • DangerMom

    After reading a five-star, positively glowing review of Beowulf in the paper, you have restored my faith in humanity, MaryAnn!

    I agree with Brad–this type of movie seems so off, so sterile. I couldn’t watch Polar Express, and previews of this one have been creeping me out for weeks.

  • Der Bruno Stroszek

    I notice you’ve recently watched and loved Atonement, MaryAnn. Does not the casting of Bryony Tallis in that movie make a mockery out of Zemeckis’s justification of using motion capture so his central character could be realistically aged over the course of the film? With good casting and acting, you completely believe in Saorsie Ronan, Romola Garai and Vanessa Redgrave as three versions of the same person – even though you know they’re different actresses.

    Not that watching Ray Winstone for a whole film is any great hardship, of course, but why hire Ray Winstone if you’re going to paint out anything that gives him character?

  • MaryAnn

    Not because of the dead eyes thing, or the ever-so-wrongness of TOO-real animation (which I haven’t considered before), but because the trailer just seems to lack…I dunno, passion. Emotion. The lines come off as cheesy, not heroic, certainly not like they came from a saga.

    But that lack of passion and emotion is a function of the use of animation in this instance. Live actors could have sold those lines as not-cheesy.

    Does not the casting of Bryony Tallis in that movie make a mockery out of Zemeckis’s justification of using motion capture so his central character could be realistically aged over the course of the film?

    Is that Zemeckis’s excuse? That’s a pretty lousy one. Yes, Briony is a fine example of different actors as the same character, and so is Unax Ugalde/Javier Bardem as Florentino in *Love in the Time of Cholera* (though that movie is nowhere near as successful as *Atonement* overall).

  • Chris

    After reading a number of your reviews over the past couple of months, it seems to be clear to me that you do not enjoy movies geared more to young males viewers, which is fine, but I would just point it out to other young males that you may not want to use Ms. Mary’s opinions for determining what movies you go see on Friday nights with your friends. She seems to give good reviews to hits that are obviously great, 300, American Gangster, Bourne Ultimatum, but she hates anything that teenagers will enjoy that has crude language or is very fantasy based, Knocked Up, Superbad, Disturbia (still dont understand how you didnt like this movie but love Transformers), Smoking Aces. I am curious though, did you see the movie in 3-D or just regular form? I’ll let you know what I thought of the movie after tonight, just was a little suprised since it is certified fresh. I thought you would have at least gave it a wait for dvd rating.

  • Fuggle

    “But it DOESN’T show Angelina Jolie starkers any more than it shows Ray Winstone starkers. The naked bodies are computer graphics, nothing more. But I guess if some men are turned on my women with plastic in their bodies, it’s just one step more to be turned on by bodies that are entirely fake.”

    If a crude painting on a cave wall can be seen as a Buffalo, if :) can be seen as a smiley face, then can’t a cartoon be seen as sexy?

  • Mel

    So, I am a young woman. I like action movies and I like the story of Beowulf (although I suppose having actually read most of it in translation would make me a bad analogue for “average young (male) viewer.”

    I also love Neil Gaiman’s work, in general. So I should, theoretically, love this movie.

    But I don’t get the point of taking perfectly good actors and making them CG–just like life but slightly plastic-looking. I go to movies to see either actors’ art or animators’ art, not this inadequate halfway thing created primarily by motion capture algorithms that isn’t either.

    So is the only difference between me and the so-called “young male viewer” my lack of tolerance for unnecessary CG? Why would men, generally, have more tolerance for unnecessary CG?

    I don’t buy it, sorry. And I don’t buy most of the generalizations about demographics people are wont to make (“women don’t like action movies/cop shows/etc.”) without actually *looking* at viewer demographics, either.

  • MaryAnn

    she hates anything that teenagers will enjoy

    No, she tends to hate anything that *only* teenagers will enjoy.

    I am curious though, did you see the movie in 3-D or just regular form?

    I saw it in 3D. Strangely enough, it did not make the fake “actors” any more realistic?

    can’t a cartoon be seen as sexy?

    Sure. As long as you’re not deluded into thinking the cartoon is what Angelina Jolie actually looks like naked.

    (“women don’t like action movies/cop shows/etc.”)

    Yeah, I hate that bullshit too.

  • Shadowen

    I was watching a preview for this movie and saw that Grendel’s mom was apparently wearing heels.

    She was naked. But she had heels.

    In 8th-century Scandinavia.

    I made up my mind right then not the see the movie. It was either bad CGI, or they decided that quasi-evil female creatures have a head for fashions over a thousand years in advance.

  • justaguy

    Wow, I’m so sorry that the author of this article didn’t get to see this phenomenal movie and partake in the most uniquely enthralling movie experience I’ve ever had.

  • MaryAnn

    She was naked. But she had heels.

    Ye olde stilettos. C’mon: everyone was wearing them!

    Wow, I’m so sorry that the author of this article didn’t get to see this phenomenal movie and partake in the most uniquely enthralling movie experience I’ve ever had.

    Weird. I’m actually working on a new function for the site that will allow me to psychically partake in the moviegoing experiences of my readers.

    I wish I’d seen the phenomenal version of *Beowulf.* Where is it playing?

  • MBI

    I don’t know if you could tell or not, but those heels she was wearing were her actual heels. As in, those are supposed to be actual flesh and bone, not clothing.

    As for Maryann not liking films for teenagers, she gave good reviews to Transformers and 300, so it’s not like she didn’t like this movie because she doesn’t like movies based around silly badass action sequences.

    I disagree with Maryann about the weight of this movie’s relative strengths and weaknesses — in fact, I’d go so far as to call this a good movie. It’s a deeper film than 300, it’s a more complex film than 300, and it’s a more interesting film than 300.

    If not for that CGI bullshit, it would be a better film than 300. But yeah, there’s no reason, no reason at all, for this to be animated. It doesn’t bother me as much as MaryAnn, but there’s still no excuse for it. What the hell, Zemeckis? I just watched an ad for this movie that called it “the future of film.” Can you believe that? That makes me very nervous indeed.

  • Have standards

    It being touted as “the future of film” is probably the movie’s reason for being. Haven’t seen it yet, but plan to, arming myself with the awareness that’s it’s probably cheesy and laughable.

    One reviewer remarked that if it had been filmed the “old-fashioned” way, with real live actors, you probably wouldn’t bother to watch it. Sounds like it has gimmick value, with extra points for the cheese and unintentional humor.

    Hm… I’d like to see Terry Gilliam collaborating with Neil Gaiman on a movie… I’d go see that.

  • Philip

    There some much wrong with this movie other than the CGI that you could write a dissertation on it.

    I have to respectufully disagree with Mary-Ann about the core of the movie being the kings denial of the monster Grendels essntial humanity and the consequences this carries. From what I saw, the primary motivator of conflict was that the viking keg-party got too loud and Grendel lodged a formal complaint by murdering the party-goers. The rest of the film seems to turn into some type of wierd, incredibly expensive after school special, “don’t have sex with the gold plated Angelina Jolie real doll or your demon/dragon offspring with come back to destroy your kingdom like tertiary stage syphilis”. As a fan of Neil Gaimans work, I can’t help but find this disappointing. An argument could be made that this is a chicken come home to roost scenario, but frankly Beowulf & Grendel starring Gerald Butler did that and did it better, without the ham-fisted dialogue and the juevenile implied sex.

    Speaking of Mr. 300, there was so much screaming of “I am BEOWULF!” and “You are BEOWULF!”, that I half expected the aforementioned Mr. Butler to come bursting through the door and scream “This is SPARTA!” in finest Monty Python tradition. That at least would have been entertaining.

    Then theres the actors who, with the exceptiong of Ray Winstone, barely register: Crispin Glover (pigeonholed into the “screaming, gibbering lunatic” role ever since Charlies Angels), Angelina Jolie (one step closer in her transformation into the real Lara Croft), Anthony Hopkins (sleeping) and John Malkovich (wait, you mean he was in this movie too?) all have so few lines or presence that to credit them in this movie seems a bit insulting.

    I apologize for the lengthly rant, I just saw the movie yesterday evening and the wounds are still raw. Especially since I actually wanted to see American Gangster, but that was sold out.

  • MaryAnn

    frankly Beowulf & Grendel starring Gerald Butler

    I cannot emphasize enough how much everyone needs to see that movie instead of this one. My review is here.

  • Johnny

    well I don’t know what everyones problem is. I just got back from the movie. I went against Maryann’s review. and I’m glad that I did. Because that was a good movie. The effects where sharp looking. Their was action, and the backround was dead on. It really captured the Nordic era. Its seems like no one cares for the whole viking thing anymore. So I guess it helps that I can appreciate a good Nordic movie.
    I hope this paves the way for more films like this. I could totally see Conan done the way this film was. Being that no live actor could one up Arnold’s portrayal of Conan. Then we got naked Angelina Jolie, I mean thats like a early Hollywood Christmas present. Shes got gold all over, thats all I need in life, is gold and Jolie

  • MaryAnn

    Its seems like no one cares for the whole viking thing anymore.

    Are you seriously suggesting that someone named “Johanson” doesn’t care for “the whole viking thing”?

    Effects, action, and background are supposed to the be the icing on the cake, not the cake itself.

    Then we got naked Angelina Jolie

    No, you didn’t: you got a cartoon of Angelina Jolie naked.

    You’re kidding about the Jolie thing, right? Tell me you’re kidding…

  • Krow

    I’m happy as long as Angelina does her “all purpose” Transylvanian accent again.

  • I’m not going to see this movie despite the actors, despite Neil Gaiman’s involvement, no, I’m not going to see this movie because it plainly has very little to do with the actual story. And the high heels thing really disturbed me. Along with the creepy graphics.

  • Chris

    Mary,

    As previously stated, I would let you know what I thought after I saw the movie, which I have. I thought it was an ok adaptation. Yes there are still momments of the charcters having dead stares but I still thought overall it was a decent movie. Zemeckes did a great job with the battles, especially the finale which I thought gave the movie the last hump it needed to be an ok flick. I wouldnt call it the greatest action movie ever made but I do think it entertains. Grendal was especially disturbing, almost as disturbing as when I read Beowulf and Jolie does a good job as Grendal’s mother. I thought the biggest let downs were Anthony Hopkins and John Malcovich who both seemed very drull. I do think the 3D element makes this a movie worth seeing in theaters, but if you are only being offered standard 2D I would wait for DVD release.

  • I probably owe this movie a more complete critique than “I fell asleep partway through it.” But I did fall asleep partway through it.

    And worse yet, none of the stuff I saw while awake–including a desnuda Angelina Jolie–did little to make me regret falling asleep.

    Guess I should have rented “Gia.”

  • Did anything, I mean.

  • Robert

    I guess I can’t call you wrong per se, if you didn’t like the look of the film you didn’t like it but I sure came away feeling very differently than you. I found it extremely engaging both as a story and technologically.

    Why? Why go through all the bother of hooking real, live, warm, breathing, human actors up to sensors, capturing their motion, recording their voices, and translating them into computerized images that, for the most part, look exactly like them (except for the dead eyes and slack facades)? What’s the point? Why not just, you know, film the actors? Honestly, my mind is reeling. I simply don’t get it.

    Many reasons.

    One of the problems I’ve had with combining live and CGI is that they often don’t really meld convincingly. Here, since everything is CGI, you don’t get that jarring disruption. It’s more seamless.

    Yeah, they can film the actors, but there are certain things that certain physical a/or fiscal realities won’t allow. Certain shots you simply can’t do with a camera – certain pans, zooms, freefall type shots (I don’t claim to be hip to all the industry jargon so just describing it the best I can) They *can’t* film an actor riding on the back of a flying dragon. They can simulate it, and these days they’re just going to do it with CGI anyway. Didn’t you grouse loudly about that one character in 300 who looked like a guy in a raisin suit and felt he should have been done with CGI?

    Further, the characters themselves can be made a bit superhuman. No actor or stuntman, no matter how athletically gifted could match the physicality exhibited by Beowulf. They don’t need cutaway shots to fool us into thinking he’s doing it. They can show him doing it. And that’s another thing, no chance of stuntmen being crippled or killed.

    Sure, this could have been done mixed live/CGI. But it’s obvious that the state of the art has advanced, and imo this is another very valid reason to do it this way – because they can. To stretch the boundaries of what can be done with the technology. I remain surprised that you don’t get more excited about this aspect, particularly given that you’re a big sci-fi / fantasy geek. Sure, Polar Express wasn’t great but remember that the first attempts at launching a space rocket were disasters.

    The realism is far beyond what Final Fantasy achieved and immensely better than what I saw of Polar Express – which I actually thought wasn’t as well done as FF. There were a number of scenes in Beowulf I think most people wouldn’t realize wasn’t live action. From what I’ve read, what we see on the screen in a production like this actually isn’t the best that *can* be done, it’s the best that they can afford to do.

    It wouldn’t work for every movie (yet) but since this is a fantasy story, I don’t think the somewhere-outside-of-reality look is out of place. Mixed CGI/Live action is a hifalutin’ extension of a concept that’s existed from the earliest days of animation. This is a different animal – melding elements of animation and live action in the very fabric of the images. Overall I really think it worked. It would be interesting to see a Superman movie done this way.

    I disagree that they didn’t capture the emotion of the characters. This is one of the areas I thought they really improved on. For one thing, the mouth movement matched the formation of the words. I looked for it specifically and once convinced that they had gotten it right, I was able to forget about it. There were some points where the faces looked more convincing than others but in general I thought they did a helluva job. And let’s face it, how “real” are the actors you see in any movie? Do real people have makeup and hair professionals hovering just off camera and a million dollars worth of lighting following them down the street and all the other tricks of the trade, such as post-production digital touch-up?

    I liked it.

  • Robert

    Btw, I’ve seen comments that this isn’t what Angelina Jolie looks like in real life. When did this become the standard for judging a movie, particularly a fantasy adventure? I imagine she doesn’t *really* look like she does at a red carpet photo-op either. Nonetheless, she’s still right purty.

    And what about Ray Winstone? Given the pics I’ve seen of him, if he ever had abs like the Beowulf character, it wasn’t any time recently.

  • MaryAnn

    One of the problems I’ve had with combining live and CGI is that they often don’t really meld convincingly.

    Sorry, but *Lord of the Rings,* particularly the last one, and now *The Golden Compass,* which I just saw tonight, prove that this is not true. CGI and live-action CAN be believably combined.

    the mouth movement matched the formation of the words.

    True. But that has very little do with the sense that there’s a real person behind a face.

    how “real” are the actors you see in any movie?

    The worst of them are no better than this. But the best of them? Oh man, CGI cannot compare.

    what about Ray Winstone? Given the pics I’ve seen of him, if he ever had abs like the Beowulf character, it wasn’t any time recently.

    Agreed. And as soon as someone says, “OHMIGOD Ray Winstone was SO HOT in this!!!!” I will point this out to them.

  • Robert
    One of the problems I’ve had with combining live and CGI is that they often don’t really meld convincingly.

    Sorry, but *Lord of the Rings,* particularly the last one, and now *The Golden Compass,* which I just saw tonight, prove that this is not true. CGI and live-action CAN be believably combined.

    Hmmm. This brings some questions to mind. So, you’re not against CGI altogether, but an all CGI film that’s trying to be something besides a cartoon ruffles your sensibilities.

    Funny you mention LOTR since that was an example I was thinking of where the two don’t quite meld. Are you *really* convinced when live and CGI are put side by side? Did Smeagol truly look like a completely organic, living creature? I really didn’t think so, though I certainly applaud the technological achievement he represents and enjoyed the film.

    Ditto the Spiderman films, etc. I personally didn’t think the CGI material added to the old Star Wars films improved them at all.

    The application of the technology is getting better and better – there are moments when it’s truly hard to tell – but it still isn’t 100% consistently indistinguishable from real life yet. So, that’s my premise for feeling there’s a valid reason to have a film that’s 100% excellent-but-not-quite-there-yet pseudo-life animation. It’s not the only way to do it, but I don’t think it’s a bad idea to do it that way.

    You think Polar Express sucked, and weren’t impressed with FF. Flawed as you may feel it is, can you be objective and at least agree that Beowulf surpassed them both in what it was trying to achieve?

    I can’t help but think that doing something on a grand scale like this is the only way they ARE going to get better at it. Listening to the animator’s narrative on FF, it’s clear that they run into situations that aren’t covered in the manual so to speak, and have to become innovative, break new ground as they go. They probably come up with a list of suggestions for the programmers -“okay here’s what we need, can you make this possible?” etc.

    I’m curious, if the technology gets to the point where they CAN consistently and indistinguishably mimic a human presence, including simulating a voice without any need for a live actor, will you still object to it no matter how good the script or the “performance”?

    Of course, I imagine this is a topic of great concern to SAG members since it seems to be a matter not of if but when this will be achieved.

    Once past the novelty stage, I wonder how accepting the general public would be of all-digital movie stars? Will they still prefer that silicone-implanted, botoxed, collagen-lipped, liposucked performers at least have a real heartbeat and a SSN?

  • Robert

    You think Polar Express sucked, and weren’t impressed with FF. Flawed as you may feel it is, can you be objective and at least agree that Beowulf surpassed them both in what it was trying to achieve?

    Also, on this point where it was far better than FF, besides the improved animation, they actually had a decent script. This was a well-told story, imo.

    Though, I have to think they were being intentionally tongue-in-cheek with the instances of the sardonic clapping cliche’ they kept throwing in. There was an SNL skit centered around that very device.

    The only other major glitch I recall is where Beowulf severs his arm. A) I know it was supposed to be a dramatic sacrifice and echoing his taking Grendel’s arm, but it’s not clear exactly how it gained him anything. I don’t see how it would improve the geometry of the situation B) How did he sever it *at the shoulder* fer godsakes without also severing his shirt/armor and simply crashing to the ground C) There would have been a huge amount of blood spewing everywhere that wasn’t in evidence and would have surely rendered him unconscious from the blood loss, pain and shock.

  • MaryAnn

    So, you’re not against CGI altogether

    What made you think I was?

    but an all CGI film that’s trying to be something besides a cartoon ruffles your sensibilities.

    As long as CGI can’t be more than cartoonish, yes.

    if the technology gets to the point where they CAN consistently and indistinguishably mimic a human presence, including simulating a voice without any need for a live actor, will you still object to it no matter how good the script or the “performance”?

    What makes you think I wouldn’t? Is not my primary complaint here that the characters seem dead? If the characters aren’t dead, if they appear completely human — including the sense that they are capable of spontaneity — then what do you imagine my objection would be?

    When we can’t tell whether CGI characters are ad-libbing or reading from the script, then they will be indistinguishable from human actors. It’s not just about how they “look” — it’s about whether they can fool us into thinking they are alive. The CGI “people” in this movie are trying to do that — that’s what’s different from, say, any given Pixar or Disney cartoon — but they fail. That’s why the movie fails.

  • Robert
    if the technology gets to the point where they CAN consistently and indistinguishably mimic a human presence, including simulating a voice without any need for a live actor, will you still object to it no matter how good the script or the “performance”?

    What makes you think I wouldn’t?

    Among other things, your statement about “why don’t they just film actors instead of simulating them?” Trying to zero in on whether your complaint is a curmudgeonly refusal to accept CGI people, or you simply find the current state of the art too flawed to be enjoyable.

    Not quite clear on why you’re fine with imperfect CGI animals and goblins but feel incensed by imperfect CGI humans.

    Is not my primary complaint here that the characters seem dead?

    I guess we have a fundamental disagreement over perception. There were a number of moments during Beowulf that I thought they did a superb job of conveying emotion. For example, when Beowulf has Grendel trapped with the door and is bellowing of his prowess, dang, I thought he came across as a true badass. When Hrothgar was grilling Beowulf as to whether he had truly killed Grendel’s mother, I really thought they conveyed quite a bit of subtlety.

    In the art world, it’s my understanding that conveying human expression even in a still portrait is considered to be extremely difficult. While I wouldn’t want to see every movie done this way, I think this was a suitable vehicle for it and see what they’ve done here as a pretty monumental achievement, even if it’s not perfect.

  • MaryAnn

    Not quite clear on why you’re fine with imperfect CGI animals and goblins but feel incensed by imperfect CGI humans.

    Because we’re not looking for the same things from animals and monsters as we are from people! I want to see actors’ faces. I want to see the intelligence and talent that goes into their performances. I want to see the thinking before their performances. We get none of that in *Beowulf.* We get perfectly depicted skin pores, but no sense of the soul that animates the face.

  • Maral

    I agree 100% with MaryAnn. IMO the almost-human-but-not-quite factor was overwhelmingly distracting – when CG characters aren’t trying to look 100% human they’re believable because we’re accepting that it’s merely a symbol for or interpretation of humanity, just like with cartooning, comics and traditional animation.

    The farther away from photorealism you go, the more leeway and freedom you have and the more the audience will accept because they’re already suspending their disbelief. But because we are so used to seeing and interacting with humans every day, when something is just a little bit off from absolute realism, it sticks out like a sore thumb. That’s why mannequins and dolls creep a lot of people out (and are the subject for so many horror movies) – they’re almost human-looking but not quite, which is jarring and disturbing.

    As for the animals/monsters argument, we don’t focus on the tiny details of an animal’s face and movements the way we do with people; I’m sure a naturalist or wildlife painter would notice something off, but most people wouldn’t, because most of us simply do not have the same extreme familiarity that we do with humans.

    In Beowulf the characters were made to look as much like real actors as possible, but they just don’t pass. Especially the close-ups on Robin Wright Penn’s and John Malkovich’s characters. And her hands on the harp? Gahhh.

    Not to mention the fact that CG *still* cannot render realistic cloth at ALL. Everyone looked like they were wearing spandex, which is fine in The Incredibles or Spider-Man or even Final Fantasy, but when the movie is supposed to be set in 6th century Denmark? Sorry, but woven cloth wrinkles, pulls, sags and folds. I found it incredibly jarring.

    I also found the 3D to be distracting (I could clearly see the planes where they’d separated the planes of ‘depth’), gratuitous and totally unnecessary. Sorry, but 3D doesn’t make fake, plastic-looking actors any more believable.

  • MaryAnn

    most of us simply do not have the same extreme familiarity that we do with humans.

    Exactly. Human faces are the first things we see when we’re born, and our brains are designed to seek them out and interpret them. (It’s arguable that our ability for pattern recognition is connected to our need to identify the faces of our mothers and our kin.) Faces are so important to us that we see them even when they aren’t there: like the “man in the moon.”

    CGI is going to have to get much, much better if it’s ever going to fool us into believing the human faces it puts before us.

  • dgrhm

    I went to the movie to be entertained by the 3D effects. It was fun to watch, but there was a emptiness to the characters.

    It was like watching plastic people interact. If you’ve played video games, you’ve seen the same wooden acting that really takes away from the fun of the game.

    Overall, it was like watching puppets. I’ve asked myself why they didn’t just use the real life actors instead of computer generated puppetry?

    I can see a case for using CGI people in various special effects, but to make them main characters is silly. (I think that’s the key flaw with Lucas’ Star Wars Episodes I-III. He tried to replace people with CGI. In turn, his stories where hollow.)

    I also agree with your concept regarding animation. It should be used representationally rather than trying to mimic reality. It’s why I’ve always liked Looney Tunes and Tex Avery cartoons compared to Disney cartoons.

    It’s a novelty. I’m sure it made money, and somebody else will make another movie.

    I can’t see people ever being replaced by computer characters though. We’ll see.

  • Robert

    I went to the movie to be entertained by the 3D effects. It was fun to watch, but there was a emptiness to the characters.

    It was like watching plastic people interact. If you’ve played video games, you’ve seen the same wooden acting that really takes away from the fun of the game.

    Besides that the animation is far superior to any video game I’ve ever seen including the Playstation and X-Box, another major difference is in the performances.

    I enjoy FF for the visual but feel it’s lacking as a piece of storytelling. Beowulf not only surpassed FF technologically but is, IMO, also a much better movie as far as the story it tells and the way it tells it. Some including MAJ obviously disagree with me, but overall I really think it worked.

    I happened to see a chunk of Polar Express while on the treadmill at the gym a couple of weeks ago, one of the problems with that film is they didn’t implement the technology as well as had already been done. I don’t claim to be an expert but I suspect it was done on the cheap compared to FF.

    …I can see a case for using CGI people in various special effects, but to make them main characters is silly.

    “Why not?” is the phrase that comes immediately to mind. Why not try something different. The first moving images, crude as they were, were considered marvels and they were. Then sound, then color, which weren’t as polished as they are today but were technological breakthroughs. What about the original King Kong?

    I’ve asked myself why they didn’t just use the real life actors instead of computer generated puppetry?

    Out of curiosity, do you ask that when they use it in movies such as Spiderman or Superman?

    CGI has become an integral part of movie making. Largely used as a fill-in, it seems natural to me to attempt to make entire movies using the technology.

    I truly have a hard time believing there weren’t certain scenes that anyone would find pretty cool as far as a certain look and feel that can *only* be achieved within the realm of CGI.

    And tell me you didn’t think Angelina Jolie looked smokin’… ;-)

    While it may not be perfected, I think it does give a glimpse of things to come.

    I also agree with your concept regarding animation. It should be used representationally rather than trying to mimic reality.

    Isn’t making movies all about “mimicking reality”? Why is it somehow more offensive to mimic/alter reality using computer-generated technology than using conventional SFX/photographic tricks, building facades, rubber and foam prosthetics, makeup, lighting, etc.

    You do realize that in many movies virtually none of the sound you hear actually happened when the images were filmed? The ostensibly “real” voices of the actors have been highly processed and enhanced.

    In many cases the lush orchestral score you’re listening to is done by a guy with a synth keyboard and software in a project studio. Look up some Gigasampler/Gigastudio demos sometime.

  • MaryAnn

    do you ask that when they use it in movies such as Spiderman or Superman?

    Spiderman and Superman have not been CGI when they were required to emote and behave like actual human beings we could accept as real. Flying through the air from a distance? Fine. But a CGI Peter Parker trying to convey his anguish over his hopeless love for Mary Jane? It wouldn’t work.

    Isn’t making movies all about “mimicking reality”? Why is it somehow more offensive to mimic/alter reality using computer-generated technology than using conventional SFX/photographic tricks, building facades, rubber and foam prosthetics, makeup, lighting, etc.

    Actors covered in foam and prosthetics have a hard time being convincingly emotional, too.

    You do realize that in many movies virtually none of the sound you hear actually happened when the images were filmed?

    Yeah, but it *sounds* real. It fakes us out well enough to make us believe that it’s real. CGI faces aren’t there yet.

  • I make my living trying to understand how we perceive images, and I agree 100% with MaryAnn. We learn from early childhood how to recognize incredibly minute variations in faces. The difference between a smile and a frown may be some large number of muscles, but even on a large screen, it’s only a few pixels. As a result the rendering software is going to have to get several orders of magnitude more accurate before we’re going to get through the “Uncanny Valley” … or we’re going to have to get much more artistic. While Zemeckis may have failed with his creepy and expensive software – Leonardo captured exquisite expressions 500 years ago with a little paint and a brush.

  • MaryAnn

    It’s not just about visual accuracy but about, for lack of a better word, soul. The CGI “people” here have no soul.

  • amanohyo

    I think one big problem is that there’s a generation of kids who have watched a bajillion corny video game RPG cutscenes (mostly Japanese) and consider some of them to be dramatic masterpieces. (They’ve also pleasured themselves to a bajillion plastic-breasted CGI/animated blow up dolls, but that’s a larger issue)

    I hate to use the word soul too because of all the religious mumbo jumbo that it brings to mind, but I seriously think that many teenagers today wouldn’t value a “soulful” performance from a live actor any more than the CGI zombie melodrama found in this movie. There are some that would, but their numbers are shrinking.

    This isn’t exactly a new idea, but maybe in this post-post-post modern world, people are gradually becoming incapable of recognizing the value in (or connecting with) something that is simply and genuinely human. It’s not that they don’t recognize the difference, but they value the simulation more than the human because its ties to technology make it more familiar, immediate, and meaningful to them. The production of movies like this is also driven by our hyperconsumer-constantly-upgrading society where content is irrelevant as long as it’s the latest version with the best specs and the most extra special limited edition, behind the scenes crap.

    To put it another way, kids these days (sheesh, I sound like such a fogey) have had the fourth wall broken their entire lives, over and over to the point where they understand that most of the real people they see (in Reality TV or otherwise) are “fake” or performing in some way. Seeing something that is completely and honestly false like a cartoon or a CGI movie might feel almost refreshingly “real.” At least, that’s the impression I get sometimes from a lot of my students when they explain why they enjoy CGI movies that seem obviously hollow and soulless to me.

  • MaryAnn

    There doesn’t have to be any religious connotation to “soul,” but call it “consciousness” or — ironically — “animation.” You want the sense that there’s a living awareness behind the eyes.

    This acceptance of the falseness of cartoons you’re talking about, amanohyo, might work in a story that had some connection to exploring themes of falseness or awareness or anything thematically relevant. But *Beowulf* is not that movie. *Beowulf* thinks it’s getting “soulful” performances out of its “actors,” and in fact the movie only works as anything other than a video game if it *does* get that soul… but it doesn’t have that soul.

  • *I think one big problem is that there’s a generation of kids who have watched a bajillion corny video game RPG cutscenes (mostly Japanese) and consider some of them to be dramatic masterpieces.*

    why do we always blame the “kids” and what they watch or grew up watching? they don’t write or produce the movies they are watching. if you’re so convinced it’s cultural, blame the older generation for giving us these kinds of movies. Robert Zemeckis is no kid — for god’s sake, he’s 55 years old. next year, he’s got a production of “A Christmas Carol” coming out — in the same horrifying CGI style. *shudder*

  • amanohyo

    Hey now, I blamed kids AND Japanese game developers. Just kidding, I see your point. Sometimes my frustrations in the classroom spill over into “kids these days” grandpa rants. I don’t really blame Zemeckis for trying to push technology, and kids can’t help being raised in a society where shiny, sterile new tech is comforting and ubiquitous and sexy.

    It’s not much fun when there’s no one left to blame. My intention wasn’t to blame kids, it was to suggest that for some of them the uncanny valley is actually where they spend most of their leisure time, so what we old timers find soulless and creepy, they actually find comforting. Or maybe Zemeckis just wasted a bunch of money on tech. that isn’t quite there because marketers and producers hopped on for the expensive ride with little dollar signs in their eyes and most kids really are creeped out by the CGI zombie shuffle and I’m full of it.

  • A CGI/Zemeckis version of “A Christmas Carol”? Jacob Marley, please call your office…

  • MaryAnn

    Are there no workhouses for the likes of Zemeckis?

  • AlanMorgan

    It’s an interesting experience reading a review and agreeing with everything but the final assessment of the movie. I liked Beowulf and yet I can’t disagree with any of your points. The performers looked plastic (excect Jolie, who has always seemed more than a little plastic in real life as far as I’m concerned), when Beowulf was jumping around int he all-together I though of Austin Powers and just groaned, there was no point to the motion capture, but… ah, hell. I still liked it. Someday someone is going to make a motion capture based movie that really needs to be motion capture and we’ll be stunned. This wasn’t it.

  • As a film director, If you ever experienced the frustration of dealing with people not coming back from breaks, complaining while on the set, getting angry because they are not paid enough.

    You will learn to love the new technology of digital film making. Not to say 3D ANIMATION is all peaches and cream but it sure beats getting up yelling at at people all day because someone said they have cold or have an attitude because they just broke up with their boyfriend.

    Imagine waking up in the morning and walking into your home studio placing scenes together and all the actors and going to bed when you feel like it. It’s heaven.

  • MaryAnn

    Yeah, humans are so annoying. And messy.

    Of course, if you cut humans out of the equation, then you don’t get all that glorious messy humanity up on the screen, either.

    And what’s to stop your animators from bitching about working conditions and not returning from breaks?

  • as one of those actors who has worked under film directors, i can tell you they’re not always a joy either — since i remember one time doing *19* takes of one line because the director wasn’t sure what he wanted from the scene. and just like not all directors are like that — not all actors are irresponsible or let their personal lives rule their professional ones.

    additionally, it is my understanding that the kind of CGI found in Polar Express and Beowulf requires the presence of actors to be be wired up and tracked for expression and movement. and so one still has to deal with real, living people, and their oh so inconvenient human-ness.

  • Hi MaryAnn (remember me from Boskone?) – I hated Beowulf too! I couldn’t get lost in the story because I kept thinking about how weird everyone looked. Ugh. And Did Grendel need to be so gooey?

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