Unfortunately I can’t be as enthusiastic as the Unbridled Warhorse about Zemeckis’ mo-cap and digi-lipo adaptation of the Anglo-Saxon poem. Gaiman and Avary’s twists on the Beowulf story are clever but to be honest I would rather see Troy or 300 again before rewatching Beowulf. It was just kind of slow and boring. I now wish I had seen it in 3D to give it some novelty, but it was a last-minute decision when American Gangsters had sold out.
Admittedly I entered critically since I don’t understand motion capture that attempts to replicate the actors in every way (or at least their faces). The process’ largest disservice is to Robin Wright Penn who is a very expressive actress but she acts with her eyes rather than with facial expressions, so her digital avatar is the most plastic and least expressive of the entire cast. Likewise, none of Angelina Jolie’s sensuality is communicated because she lacks the texture of real skin. The process of building an idealisation of the actress is the 3D analogue of a model who becomes visually two-dimensional when her skin is airbrushed to uniform ‘perfection’.
When it comes to digital cameras, pardon my indulgence in quoting a previous review but it sums up what I consider the good and bad about them:
I dislike computer-generated images which attempt to reproduce the physicality of a real camera, such as rattling when a building collapses nearby, unless the point of view is supposed to be that of a documentarian’s camera. But I also dislike, at the other end of the spectrum, the impersonal, flawlessly smooth movements that plague most 90s attempts at CG but can still be seen in the sweeping overhead shots in Lord of the Rings and very low budget CG films like Hoodwinked. Ideally computer-generated films should exploit the absence of a camera’s physical limitations rather than recreate them.
Beowulf is a mixed bag. Though it tends towards impersonally smooth, the virtual camera is undoubtedly exploited for physically impossible shots, such as a multi-mile ‘crane’ shot that retreats from the mead hall all the way up a hill to Grendel’s cave. The same shot is later reversed when Grendel’s mother leaves the cave flies down to the hall herself. One of my favorite aspects is that Grendel’s mother is never shown until Beowulf meets her because all of her first-act scenes are from her own point of view. We are only teased with fleeting glimpses of her true nature from her reflection in shiny shields or the water’s surface.
The ubiquitous LOTR comparisons are justified if for no other reason than that Grendel is an overgrown Gollum complete with Sympathy Inducing Action. At least in his case the motion capture was used properly. On the other hand the horses looked like they are from Shrek, their movements are so distractingly mechanical. The best moments are Beowulf’s embellished fight with the sea-serpents. Speaking of which, this version of the eponymous hero resembles no one as much as Odysseus (moreso than even Jack Sparrow does), which I found interesting because if I adapted the Odyssey for film I would similarly interpret the hero as an unreliable narrator.
One of the promised but undelivered themes was the replacement of the Norse pantheon by Christianity, which is explicitly alluded to early on but results merely in one of the unlikable characters sporting a giant cross in old age. Beowulf himself observes that the Christ god has brought an end to traditional heroes — not particularly controversial since the later English epic Paradise Lost critiques the martial heroes of classical epic — but since the movie is itself a revisionist interpretation if not debunking of the Hero in general and this hero specifically, the statement rings false especially from his mouth. I had anticipated an interesting statement about the advent of Christianity in Scandinavia which obviously ended the Viking lifestyle, but it amounted to just historical time-setting.
The last shot, or exchange of shots/reverse shots, is perhaps a microcosm of most of the movie: an attempt to be clever or thoughtful but actually just boring. The ‘ambiguous ending’ is now a cliche in its own right, and given the personality of the character in question I think it was a stretch to imply such lengthy equivocation on his part. Can we finally retire this cheap trick that is the half-sibling of the twist ending?