Sunday, December 02, 2007


"I!! AM!! BEOWULF!!!!!!"

Yeah, right, okay. You're Beowulf, I'm happy for you.

It was inevitable I suppose, considering the incredible success of Peter Jackson's adaptation of LORD OF THE RINGS, that the American Fantasy Meisters would have to show that they can make big fantasy extravaganzas as well as any New Zealand guy. It was also inevitable that they would fail pretty drastically, considering the general immaturity of the American Fantasy Meisters, people who are, as I write, preparing yet another Indiana Jones film. Zemeckis' BEOWULF is a disaster, to be sure. But it isn't quite the disaster I was expecting.

The easy stuff first. The film is very very weird to look at. The much-touted motion-capture technology that is supposed to make the computer-generated characters more "life-like" is a dismal failure. Character motion is terribly stiff, facial expressions only occasionally register any sign of life. The characters look kind of like the actors providing the voices. That certainly seems to be Anthony Hopkins and John Malkovich, and a good deal of time has been spent on making a CGI version of Angelina Jolie's naked body. There's been some dickying around with their features and physiques, to be sure. The Beowulf figure looks less like the voice actor Ray Winstone and more like the actor Sean Bean (a memorable Boromir in Jackson's trilogy), but Beowulf's body is right out of your local video store's gay porn section. The lingering loving shots of Beowulf's muscular torso are worthy of the equally conflicted 300. I'm not really sure what they were after with Grendel. He looks like something that lumbered off a disturbed pre-schooler's sketch pad: Frankenberry as reimagined by George Romero. And what on earth am I to make of the fact that Grendel's Mother is shown to have not just a prehensile ponytail, but high heels as well?

The figures and faces just don't really work, they don't convey enough emotion or even just plain life. They flounce around a lot, to be sure, and there's a lot of activity, but there's something missing. I was reminded of Travolta's appearance in HAIRSPRAY, that he was plainly visible under a lot of unlifelike latex, he seemed weighted down with unexpressive dead weight. It all just seems off. Compare any moment of any character in BEOWULF with any single frame of Peter Jackson and Andy Serkis' Kong and you'll see what I mean. Ultimately, BEOWULF looks like a marginally more realistic version of SHREK. The technology is a failure, and I simply don't understand why any director would settle for such results. Does Peter Jackson own the only existing copy of the software to make convincing human/animal figures?

There are some cool 3-D effects, to be fair. There's one particularly cool scene involving a dragon's sudden appearance that was startling and very very effective. But way too much of it exists for the Whoa! 3-D! Whoa! effect, the "camera" goes to a lot of trouble to move around a lot to make sure the image is very very layered. One particularly elaborate moment is a long shot beginning in a rowdy hall and pulling back and back and back and back over hill and dale through forests and into a mountain lair where Grendel sits tearing his flesh in frustration over the noise.

Now for the weird hard part to write about. It has been a long time since I read BEOWULF, and I don't remember it terribly clearly. But I do remember that the story is a lot simpler than the story in this film, which adds a lot of other elements from other sources. Grendel's Mother comes off as a combination of Macbeth's witches, Morgan le Fay, and Mephistopheles. She makes a pact with Beowulf: in return for a specific golden cup and a night of good procreative sex (she needs to replace Grendel, after all) she will ensure that he reigns unchallenged and undefeated as king.

This sets up a very drastic switch in the film's tone. The schoolboyishly enthusiastic violence and sexuality (mostly latent homosexual during Beowulf's extended nude scenes, more overtly heterosexual during Angelina Jolie's notorious scenes) of the first half falls mostly away, and there's some nattering about the growing influence of Christianity and how it has affected the poor "hero" who now can't get any attention because of all the "weeping martyrs" that the Church is supplying. Poor hero, he's not getting any attention. Make no mistake. Beowulf has a need for attention that is downright Paris Hiltonian: when he arrives to destroy Grendel, he says in no uncertain terms that he is after glory, and glory alone. Little things like removing a pestilential evil from an undeserving populace are beside the point. So now we get King Beowulf feeling kind of bored and listless. Uneasy lies the head and all that. Then, to supply a big rousing finish, (Arthurian legend fans, get ready) his kingdom is threatened by a dragon, who turns out to be Beowulf's own son by Grendel's Mother, a la Mordred.

It seems that Mordred/Beowulf Junior can turn from Gorgeous Golden Youth to Dragon at will. Why Grendel couldn't pull this trick is never explained, nor are Dragon Boy's motivations for attacking Beowulf's people. Evidently being raised by a single Mom has left him with some serious Daddy Issues.

So the big climactic battle scene is Big, and Climactic, and Battle-y, in the manner of works by Hollywood Fantasy Meisters. Beowulf's very real guilt, his willing collaboration with the evident evil represented by the monstrous (if big-titted) Grendel's Mother, his responsibility for the deaths of a lot of his people at the hands of the monstrous offspring of his hellish pact, is mentioned but never really dealt with beyond one character's use of the phrase "The Sins Of The Fathers!!!" and the occasional furrowed Beowulfian brow. Okay, the point is made that Beowulf isn't humping his mistress as enthusiastically as he used to, nor does he sleep very well, but that's about it. We are meant to mourn the passing of the Great (Action) Hero and little things like moral ambiguity can't be allowed to be get in the way.
There is however one tantalizing final moment that hints at what the film has been rather desperately trying to be, and actually seems to think that it is: a serious exploration of the impulse to acquire power and use it, by fair means or otherwise, and the results of these impulses. Alas, that tantalizing hint remains only that, and is overwhelmed in the inevitable big Power Ballad over the end credits.

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