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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