Not Your High School Teacher’s ‘Beowulf’
Ten years in the making, the effort of putting ‘Beowulf’ together is clearly evident. Using state-of-the-art performance capture technology, is an intricately-detailed tapestry of computer-generated imagery that grounds itself in the humanity of the characters and the script. Director Robert Zemeckis’s previous foray into performance capture technology—‘The Polar Express’—yielded mixed results. The story itself was well-told, but the characters looked like living dolls, with a smooth plasticine sheen and a seemingly limited range of emotion. The CGI of ‘Beowulf’—no doubt the selling point to this interpretation of the epic tale—is so photo-realistic and detailed that it is more along the lines of ‘Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within’. Where that film failed in engrossing storytelling, ‘Beowulf’ manages to succeed.
‘Beowulf’ is the story of the warrior Beowulf and his quest to kill the monster Grendel and Grendel’s mother in order to save the Danish mead hall Heorot. That basic outline is where the similarities between the original poem and the film end. Screenwriters Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary took liberty with the story and tried to approach ‘Beowulf’ in a new light—mainly, as a story told by an unreliable narrator, as they have said in a CHUD.com interview. Anyone unfamiliar with the original tale, however, will not mind as the tale is told so authentically and almost seamlessly that unless an audience member had read the original, this seems to be the original. The story is told fairly straightforward and it is easy to follow, save for a few times where the audience is left wondering, “what’s happening?” Especially in the case of the introduction of the character Ursula, which comes out of left field and leaves the viewer completely without emotion for the character.
The cast, led by Ray Winstone as Beowulf, is impeccable. Winstone does a remarkable job in conveying the subtleties of a rewritten Beowulf. He manages to convey both the grandeur and boastfulness as a revered hero and also, maybe most importantly, the air of a cowardly exaggerator. Other names include John Malkovich, Anthony Hopkins, Robin Wright Penn, and Angelina Jolie. Of these, Jolie is the most recognizable and her Old English accent lends a great amount of authenticity to the movie (Grendel, with an oddly sympathetic turn by Crispin Glover, also speaks exclusively in Old English). The problem with Jolie’s recognizability is that it almost detracts from the mood of the movie, since all the other actors are so well disguised that we are transported into a world not populated by actors. The upside to it, though, is that it showcases the CGI to an amazing degree, such that the viewer has to do a double-take and wonder if it is really CGI or if she is doing a live-action scene and is instead seamlessly integrated with the CGI.
Perhaps the most surprising element of this adaptation of ‘Beowulf’ is the humor. The audience I watched the movie with was laughing all through the first part, and the best thing was that the humor was obviously intentional. Gaiman and Avary have attempted to make the tale of ‘Beowulf’—previously the bane of any English student—as entertaining as possible. This is not a movie to watch in order to know the tale of ‘Beowulf’. This is a movie to watch in order to be entertained by the story of a man who is definitely heroic, but possibly not as much as he claims to be. Another surprising element of the movie is the amount of gore involved. It is rated PG-13, but some of the violent scenes verge on the edge of R. Grendel especially is a great example of this, as he resembles something of a flayed human being, with his muscles and tendons visible through decomposing flesh. Men are sliced, crushed, stabbed, hacked, and the filmmakers seem to revel in the amount of violence CGI allows them to depict.
Indeed, CGI is not wasted in this film. Zemeckis takes the effort to create shots that would only be possible through CGI, and as a result, there are many interesting and exciting shots.
‘Beowulf ’is a great film to watch to be entertained for two hours or to marvel at how far CGI technology has come. The detailing is remarkable—from the light chest hair on Beowulf to the tiny wrinkles on Queen Wealtheow—and the storytelling is fast and entertaining.