Beowulf. An Imagemovers Production. Directed by Robert Zemeckis.
I have seen the future, and it’s berks.
There’s something intriguing about taking an unimagineably old story and bringing it to the screen with handy-dandy fancy motion-capture CGI and 3D imagery. Intriguing and deeply wrong.
Well, I wouldn’t want to say the idea couldn’t be done well, I’m just going by this, this THING which has washed up on the cinema screens. There’s a colossal mismatch of technique and story that’s pretty fascinating to gaze at in wonderment, but you really need an old-fashioned set of 3D glasses to bring some unity to this, the red lens for the prehistoric narrative, and the green lens for the flashy computer images.
It’s a story full of primal emotions and elements, set in a cold and hostile landscape, here relocated to a world of snowy Christmas Card illustrations. The papier-mache rocks of Orson Welles’ MACBETH are far more tactile and real, even if what they are is real papier mache. It matters that they have some physical substance.
It took around half an hour of viewing before I saw anything that even felt like an image: a gilted Angelina reflected in water, distorted to the point of reptilian abstraction. Ironic that in this hyper-sharp piece of animated fan art the only frame-able shot is an impenetrable miasma of gold and black. Lovely, though.
The 3D is arresting (flat, or on the small screen, this movie just wouldn’t EXIST), but Zemeckis uses it in all the ways we’ve always been told 3D shouldn’t be used: he chucks things at the audience relentlessly, things we’d rather NOT have chucked at us, like when a hapless warrior is ripped asunder and we get a pair of meat-filled trousers slung in our faces. And when he’s not chucking, he’s pointing, rudely.
Then there’s the motion capture. A rather too-varied cast are smeared over with a glaze of CG, which deadens their eyes but fails to unify the various performing styles and accents. I understand why Beowulf and his gang of Geats sound different from Anthony Hopkins and his little tribe, but not why Beowulf is the only Cockney in Denmark, why John Malkovich is off in a world of his own, why Grendel and his mum communicate in what amount to different languages (and have no family resemblance to speak of). I also feel sorry for Ray Winstone, the only one whose CG version looks better than the real him, even though the muscle-bound Beo still runs like a fat guy. Robin Wright Penn looks as if her face has been pressed flat. Crispin Glover as Grendel is like a mummified Peat Bog Man. Anthony Hopkins has been rendered as the Dancing Baby. Angelina Jolie is just Jessica Rabbit 0.2. With high-heeled feet. Which is silly when you think about it.
Watching her big virtual nude scene, which is virtually sexy, the thought comes home that all of this would just be better in live action. Admittedly, Angelina was four months pregnant with little Shiloh when she played the part, but that would still be more interesting than the de-nippled avatar paddling around here.
There’s a whole other, more enjoyable, movie to be experienced — the original footage used for motion capture. Everybody in green jumpsuits, no sets, like an avant-garde mime version of DOGVILLE, with more fighting.
All this CG could be seen as just mismatched and garish window-dressing to a rip-roaring story, if the story ripped and roared with any real competence. But there are problems of tone: since none of these characters resemble human beings at all, they are incapable of humour (nearest thing to an exception is Brendan Gleason’s Wiglaf, who is mainly funny because he’s called Wiglaf) and Zemeckis overcompensates with odd gestures towards comedy: a Mel Brooksian chorus of belching Danes; Beowulf in the buff, his modesty protected by trained furniture, which interrupts our view of his genitals with a variety of horns and spikes and beams and other phallic alibis. It’s all rather Austin Powers. And bear in mind, this is during the first main action climax. A strange choice.
There are also problems of character: Malkovich is a motiveless creep throughout, but never pays off as an actual villain. It’s like the writers (Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary) felt the need to flesh him out so they made him a one-dimensional bad guy in a second-string hero’s-friend role. Pasting contradictory cliches together doesn’t automatically create depth.
And there’s the rather deadening effect of too much video-game style action, whereby characters can survive utterly fatal situations, but we still have to believe they’re in some kind of jeopardy. And of course we don’t. It’s a bit like Peter Jackson’s KING KONG in that way. Just because the filmmaker can show us this stuff and make it look sort of real, doesn’t mean we have to believe it.
Zemeckis used to be a maker of rather dislikeable comedies: USED CARS is a hateful farce, and he co-wrote Spielberg’s loud and obnoxious 1941 (loud and obnoxious almost become positive qualities in that film. Almost.) He moved from this barbaric phase into a period of relative civilisation (ROMANCING THE STONE, BACK TO THE FUTURE), and now looks to be truly embracing his decadent period, using each project to push the boundaries of technology rather than to communicate anything he believes in. When he wanted to twist Meryl Streep’s head back to front (be honest, we’ve all felt that way occasionally) in DEATH BECOMES HER, the writers asked “Can that be done?” Zemeckis is reported to have chuckled, “I don’t think so!” And so it belonged in the film for that very reason.
That seems the defining aesthetic of this film: things are done based on their difficulty. Zemeckis is undoubtedly generous to his audience, showering the bespectacled masses with expensive ones and zeros, but somehow the numbers don’t add up to anything human or true or memorable or original.
Apparently WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT was the last film the great Michael Powell went to see, and he was rather depressed by the experience. All that money and technical expertise and talent expended on flat, charmless characters and ropey, hackneyed plotting. I’ve always been forgiving of R RABBIT’s faults, but they’re back again in BEOWULF, without any of that film’s modest virtues to disguise them.
Footnote: as Grendel attacks the lodge, the camera moves rapidly through the hall in sudden violent pulses, in time with the hammering on the door. I was reminded of the strange pulsations in and out of focus, in time to an eerie heartbeat, as the Ghost appears in Olivier’s HAMLET. Since this is another ancient Danish yarn, it’s just possible Zemeckis checked it out as research. Or he may have been influenced more by Sam Raimi.
But since I know a story about HAMLET, I’ll pass it on. My late friend Lawrie worked as an assistant on that shoot, and recalled Olivier sending an assistant sprinting around the sound stage in order to get his heartbeat racing. Sitting the panting runner down on a box, the sound department pressed a microphone to his bosom to record the resulting sounds.
“Nothing but indigestion!”
In the end, a drum was used.
Footnote to footnote: but you can hear the real heartbeat of director Rouben Mamoulian in his DOCTOR JEKYLL AND MISTER HYDE during the amazing transformation sequence.