Beowulf
A Film by Robert Zemeckis
written by Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary


The new film from Robert Zemeckis whose career spans more than thirty years and ranges from 1980's Used Cars and 1984's Who Framed Roger Rabbit to the Back to the Future films (I, II & III), 2000's Castaway, and 2004's Polar Express, continues his theme of pushing the envelope of cutting-edge special-effects technology. The result is a film that is technically advanced and impressive, but which nonetheless doesn't effectively deliver the fully-satisfying experience of a well-told tale.

Zemeckis was one of the pioneers of the combination of live-action footage with animation in mainstream film with Roger Rabbit. He carried the concept a long step further with Polar Express, where, trying to recreate the experience of Chris Van Alsburg's picture-book, live actors, including Tom Hanks, were "rendered" into animated simulacra of themselves - an effect that seems to have been more off-putting than endearing for most moviegoers.

With Beowulf, he takes another step towards what may be the "future" of film. In this case actors are much more realistically rendered into computer-altered and -generated versions of themselves that allows them to apparently perform superhuman feats and brings a whole mythological world - complete with castles, demons and dragons - to life. Zemeckis calls the process "performance capture." It's not "animation" as we've known it in the past, but it's a far cry from conventional live-action as well.

And Zemeckis further muddies the water by adding something called "RealD" a kind of digitally generated digital "three-D." This 1950s drive-in/matinee gimmick originated with photography in the 19th Century "Stereopticon" and was adapted to film using a pair of offset images and color isolation. Unfortunately the effect here - as in the 50s - while visually arresting, is such an obvious and self-conscious device that it stops the film dead and completely distracts from the story. But even in it's failure to make a positive contribution to this film, Zemeckis does point the way to how this sophisticated visual technology might be used - with more subtlety and restraint - to actually enhance films yet to be made.

The story is adapted from the ancient poem of the same title, a saga recounting the adventures of the "Geat" hero Beowulf, who sails to Denmark sometime in the late dark ages (c.600-700 AD) to save Hrothgar, King of the Danes, by killing the monster Grendel, who has been terrorizing the land. In a savage battle, Beowulf hacks off Grendel's arm and the monster flees to die in his mountian retreat. Grendel's mother then attacks the Danes to avenge the murder of her son, and Beowulf confronts her in her lair, returning to offer King Hrothgar the head of Grendel.

In the original manuscript - that dates from the 12th Century - there is a fifty year pause in the story. Then a dragon attacks the Danish Kingdom, and the aging Beowulf must once more don his armor. He does, but in killing the dragon is mortally wounded himself. His life and death are immortalized by the Danish bards as the model of heroic bravery and self-sacrifice.

Screenwriters Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary have adapted the tale very freely. They've given King Hrothgar a dark and secret past, made Grendel's mother into a voluptuous siren who conquers men by seduction rather than violence, and made Beowulf a prideful, ambitious and over-confident man whose hubris leads him to fall into Grendel's mother's trap as blindly as Hrothgar before him.

This much more Freudian take on the original myth works up to a point, but unlike the original mythographers who revealed their world-views unconsciously in their stories, it is unclear what basic truths about human nature Gaiman and Avary's self-conscious retelling is trying to reveal. The film's "mythology" is a pastiche of themes from around the world, knitted together into something that in the end doesn't have the psychological coherence of actual myth.

The writing is effective and the story-line works better narratively than the original poem, which is full of non-sequiturs, interrupted by long speeches about the nature of bravery and the duties of Kings, and generally seems like an agglomeration of various heroic tales. But still and all, the "dramatic arc" of the story, the emotional energy of the characters that should enlist our interest and sympathy or arouse our anger and revulsion doesn't ring true. There's something contrived and manipulative about the construction of the characters and story line that keeps it from coming alive.

The most compelling moments are those between Grendel and his mother, that truly reflect the mystery of mother-love, which persists even in the face of the apparent "monstrosity" of the offspring. The inextinguishable appeal that the vulnerability of the child has for its mother is captured with a moment of real poignance.

The least compelling are those concerning the aged Beowulf, whose transition from bold, young hero to jaded, barren sovereign doesn't seem to have changed him all that much. A "redeeming" final moment in which it appears he may be finding some sort of resolution and reaches out to touch the dead hand of his own "monstrous" son is ambiguous to the point of obnubilation.

But despite these dramatic defects, the film is visually compelling. The CGI techniques applied allow "camera" movements and perspective impossible in the world of optical physics. The combination of "real" physical elements, matte painting and CGI graphics permits the creation of vividly realistic fantasy landscapes. The "performance capture" rendering of the actors allows them to look and act in ways live actors never could. There's still something a little creaky in the way facial expressions are depicted, with characters' gazes prone to seeming unfocused or empty, but in scenes that feature action rather than emotion, there's a palpable thrill in their superhuman appearance and abilities.

There's a look to the whole thing that's unfortunately reminiscent of video games - and guess what! Beowulf the Videogame is being released in stores three days before the movie officially opens.

The actors faced an unusual challenge, which most of them seem to have met with enthusiasm. The scenes were filmed in a 'black box" of unadorned workspace on a sound stage, with the actors wearing special suits and face-masks which relayed their body movements - down to eye movements and facial expressions - to computers programmed to "view" the action - digitally - from various "camera angles." The cast boasts such talents as Sir Anthony Hopkins, Crispin Glover, Angelina Jolie, John Malkovich, Brendan Gleeson and Alison Lohman.

In interviews, they report having found the experience liberating and exhilarating, freeing them from having to act within the confines of sets and "marks" and having to suffer the interminable waits while equipment is shifted from one 'set-up" to another. But it is hard to imagine actors in this outlandish attire, on a blank stage, being able to conjure the "chemistry" of which great performances are made.

And although the performances here are all professional and polished, there is none that rises to the level of Winstone's work in Sexy Beast, Hopkins' in Remains of the Day, Malkovich's in Les Liasons Dangereuses, Jolie's in Girl Interrupted, or even Glover's wonderful cameo in the original Back to the Future. On the other hand, in the person of Ray Winstone, who voices Beowulf, it allows a 5'10" slightly-pudgy middle-aged actor to be transformed into 6'6" Swedish warrior with incredible physical strength, athleticism and good looks.

In may cases the combination of the voice performances and the "performance capture" of their computer modified characters works better than might be expected - particularly for Glover, who is transformed into the horrific Grendel. Glover invests the character with a vulnerability that speaks to the link between rage, fear and pain.

The overall production design is excellent. With only CGI graphics to co-ordinate and no real sets to dress, costumes to fabricate or props to make, it makes that consistency much simpler on one level, but what has been done here has been done well. The music is a bit bombastic, but actually suitable for the kind of overwrought, fabulous melodrama.

Zemeckis and his company are touting Beowulf as "the future of film." I think that is certainly over-reaching. Zemeckis is expanding on his own previous efforts and similar work with a different intent and direction taken by Richard Linklater in Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly. But there can't be any doubt, seeing the skill and polish with which this project has been made, that it is one of the permutations of film that will have a future far beyond this early tentative step.

If this is a film that will work best for fanboys and videogame addicts, one can still imagine a different context in which the technologies presented here could be harnessed to a different kind of story and a different goal, something Bergmanesque, say, or Hitchockian, with fascinating results.

That's my take on it. What's yours?