I knew that Beowulf would be a quality bit of spectacle after seeing the 3D preview at Comic Con this summer. I was blown away by the visuals and especially by the 3D experience, but nothing I saw in that footage indicated to me that Beowulf would be anything other than a novelty thrill ride.
Imagine the level of surprise I felt when, about thirty minutes into the actual film I began to realize that Beowulf is an honest to god good movie. A really good movie, in fact. And as the movie ended I was almost dumbfounded by how excellent it often was, not just as a romp through new technology but as a real film, with solid acting, interesting characters, excellent dialouge, mature and fascinating subtexts and themes, and a great and involving story. Remember that scene in Boogie Nights with Ricky Jay and Burt Reynolds at the editing machine: ‘We’ve made a real movie’?
Robert Zemeckis has made a real movie.
Beowulf almost chafes at the confines of PG-13, filled to the brim with sexuality and sensuality and constantly buffeted by raucous, edgy violence. Beowulf might be the most hardcore PG-13 movie ever made, and I imagine that the things it gets away with – like Grendel biting the head off of one of Beowulf’s men and slowly, slowly chewing it – are because of the filmmaker’s mainstream pedigree and the perceived distancing of the animation. But that doesn’t make it any less hardcore, or any less thrilling, or any less fun.
The basics of the story are the same as the epic poem, the oldest work of English literature. King Hrothgar has a monster problem; whenever he and his men party in their newly opened beer hall, the grotesque and misshapen and hideous and really stomach turning Grendel shows up and wreaks havoc. I’m talking about ripping men in half and limb from limb, dousing the hall in blood and his own constantly flying mucous. Hrothgar, louche and flabby and with a terrible secret related to Grendel, puts the call out for heroes, and is answered by the Geat (what would today be a Swede), Beowulf, a boastful, swaggering, full of himself braggart and bastard.
In the old days Beowulf was as he appears to be, but screenwriting duo Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary take the opportunity to play with our modern sensibilities. Beowulf seems like he might be all hot air at first, but when the time for action comes he proves himself in spades. Buck naked and weaponless, he takes on the eleven foot tall monstrosity and rips its arm off, sending it howling back to its cave and its demonic mother, dying. And that’s just where things begin.
Saying that Beowulf is an adult film isn’t a code word for ‘violent’ or ‘sexy’ (but it’s both things, especially – so help me God – sexy, in the scenes where Angelina Jolia, perfected by uniting her flawless physical body with the ultraflawless digital technique, plays a seductress version of Grendel’s Mother). Beowulf is an adult film in that it’s themes are the sort that don’t usually make it into kiddie cartoons or action films; it’s a movie about regret and about living with big mistakes. It’s a film that finds its main character’s heroism not in his perfection, as it was in the poem, but in his ability to eventually overcome his human frailty and immorality and redeem himself through real selflessness. Beowulf comes to kill Grendel not for gold or mead, but for glory. His final battle, fifty years later against a giant marauding dragon, is not announced or heralded. It’s a duty he just undertakes. It’s his mess, and he cleans it up.
That dragon sequence is one of the things that has long held up a decent movie version of Beowulf. In the poem Beowulf comes to Denmark to fight Grendel, then he fights Grendel’s Mother. Returning home and becoming a king, Beowulf has fifty years offscreen until a totally unconnected dragon shows up and he fights that as well. Avary and Gaiman have figured out how to tie the first half of the story into the second half and have come up with a device that is not just dramatically satisfying but thematically perfect. After watching Beowulf you’ll wonder how this wasn’t ALWAYS the story.
Zemeckis isn’t doing any press for Beowulf; word has it that he has turned his back on the media after taking a severe beating for The Polar Express. That beating was obviously justified, as the movie was a horror show. The CGI motion capture technology that he used was not close enough to the photorealism that he was looking for, and the most common complaint about the movie (besides the fact that it just really sucked) was that everyone looked dead, like the Polar Express was a freight train to Hell. That film, along with Zemeckis’ painful filmography over the last two decades, where he seems to be enthralled with gee-whiz technology over anything else except for base and syrupy sentimentalism, cast a shadow over Beowulf. But as so often happens in this wacky business, everybody was wrong. Zemeckis still has something inside of him that’s deeper, meaner, more real than the Bubba Gump Shrimp Company or Wilson the Volley Ball. There’s still a love of character and of atmosphere that we haven’t seen since 1990’s Back to the Future III, and there’s definitely a love of the macabre and the nasty that hasn’t been around since his first Tales from the Crypt episode in 1989. It’s been a long time in the wilderness, but Beowulf returns Zemeckis to the world of real filmmakers, directors with something to say and the talent to say it well and beautifully.
The talent is also there in the cast, all of whom deliver terrific performances under the weight of a million pixels. It takes a couple of minutes to adjust to the images onscreen – these avatars that are identifiably famous actors, and yet changed and retooled – but once you do the acting shines through. John Malkovich’s Unferth goes from Beowulf’s biggest detractor to his biggest fan (and back, eventually), and that character arc is right there in the performance. Malkovich just plays it, and you believe it. Ray Winstone may not have Beowulf’s physique, but you quickly forget the computer trickery as you are sucked into the humanity of his performance as this blowhard turned morose monarch. The only performance that I wasn’t fully sold on was Jolie; I bought her as so sexy as to be impossible to deny, but she’s using that awful accent from Alexander again. Perhaps the best performance, amazingly, is Crispin Glover as Grendel. While most of his dialogue is almost indecipherable Olde English and incoherent screams, Glover finds the tragedy in the malformed beast and plays it right from the start. I don’t want to say that you feel bad for Grendel here – he is ripping people right in half for being too loud, after all – but you do feel for him.
These performances would mean nothing if the CG technology had not taken a major leap since The Polar Express. The character’s eyes remain disconcertingly… wrong, but everything else plays well. The animators have captured the actor’s facial movements with more subtlety this time, although there remains a certain level of blankness. It’s not that distracting, although it does occasionally draw attention to itself (especially with Robin Wright Penn. Her features have been broadened to give her a more Nordic look, but something about that broadness makes her face seem flat and unpliable). Still, the texture and reality of what you’re seeing (while remaining just unreal enough to be slightly stylized) supersedes the shortcomings and makes for an incredible experience.
The action in Beowulf is breathtaking, especially the epic dragon fight which has been unseen in trailers (because the footage wasn’t finished until a few weeks ago). There isn’t a ton of action here, but what exists is spectacular, grand and edge of your seat stuff. Seen in 3D – really the only way this film should be experienced – the action is not just thrilling but utterly immersive. With few exceptions, Zemeckis doesn’t go for 1950s style in your face 3D grandstanding; most of the 3D is about depth of field and texture and immediacy. Like the CG itself, it takes a couple of minutes to find your own personal groove with the 3D, but once you do it becomes second nature. I am still not sold on 3D as anything but a cool gimmick, but Beowulf goes a long way towards making me see the argument from the point of view of James Cameron, Peter Jackson and friends.
Beowulf is an exhilarating experience, a glorious spectacle and a film that rewards viewers who keep their brains turned on behind their 3D glasses. I don’t know how this movie will play on a small screen, so you must get out and see it – preferably in 3D, preferably in IMAX at that – in theaters. I don’t know if this film is a turning point in cinema or a really cool novelty, but either way it’s something that must be seen, and is something that all but the most jaded will embrace and enjoy.