Beowulf

30 11 2007

BeowulfNote: Beowulf is being screened in select venues in 3D; this review is of the regular theatrical presentation.

Ever since 1988’s Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Robert Zemeckis has increasingly relied on CGI technology in making films such as Death Becomes Her, Forrest Gump and Contact. But it was his animated adaptation of The Polar Express in 2004 where he pushed so-called “motion-capture” technology to its limits, and now, three years later, he revisits it with Beowulf.

The film is, of course, based on the epic poem of the same name, but screenwriters Neil Gaiman (MirrorMask) and Roger Avary (Pulp Fiction, The Rules of Attraction) have crafted a modernised, coherent narrative out of the ancient source text. Here they assume an unreliable narrator in the source, and so Beowulf, originally a singularly heroic character, becomes a flawed man instead. Whether this works for or against the film is open to debate, but it’s hard not to admire the attempt to craft a thematically-unified three-act screenplay out of a poem that was never designed for such.

What deserves greater discussion, however, is the motion-capture technology itself. In The Polar Express, we had a situation that seemed like the worst of both worlds: too artificial to be fully convincing yet too lifelike to think of it as pure animation — it was as if Tom Hanks’ zombie twin had started dancing in Toontown. In Beowulf, things are greatly improved, but it often looks like a videogame cutscene rather than a bona fide film. (This technique would be perfect for a Warcraft film, perhaps.)

Actors such as Ray Winstone, Anthony Hopkins and John Malkovich give wonderful performances, but their digital avatars seem to have lost some of the humanity that might otherwise have existed in a flesh-and-blood portrayal. Robin Wright Penn is the greatest victim to this — her character seems almost lifeless when it comes to facial expressions. On the other hand, Angelina Jolie as Grendel’s mother is photo-realistic and totally convincing.

Beowulf still

Something I noticed as I watched Beowulf was how subtle movements were very natural, but broader gesticulation gave the game away — it’s mostly how the characters move that’s the problem, not necessarily how they look.

There are, however, amazing sights to behold, including a battle with a dragon that is truly spectacular, and a flashback involving creatures of the deep that leaves you breathless. Yet the technology hamstrings the efforts of both the actors and screenwriters, and so the spectacle has little weight to it since we really don’t care about the characters. It all feels a bit hollow, like something crucial is missing.

The saddest part is that the creative team have obviously tried their best to create a film with some depth and subtlety as well action and excitement, but the technology has yet to mature. As it is, Beowulf is an interesting and often fun experiment that strives for greatness but still misses the mark.

(star)(star)(star)(no star)(no star)

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2 responses

6 12 2007
Kevin Olsen

Having not seen Beowulf I cannot comment on the movie itself. But, I forsaw this day coming, when people would try to replace actors with CG. I must admit that I don’t completely grasp the vision.

In “Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow” we’re introduced to CG everything . . . except the actors. And though cartoons (including CG) will always be enjoyed, what’s the point of replacing humans with 2D images? This is especially true when humans are the ones actually delivering the performance. Go ahead and add all the special effects you want to make your battle scenes juicy, just don’t replace their eyes!

“A Skanner Darkly” made sense because the digital elements fit the feel and tone of the film. It was an artistic choice to enhance the impact of the medium. But “Beowulf” is striving for reality when they already have real people standing in front of the camera giving an amazing performance.

I hope actors won’t ever be completely replaced by digital thespians. Thankfully, unless an artifical intelligence is spawned who’s sole goal isn’t the destruction of mankind, but merely to win a Oscar . . . we can always be sure there will be a man behind the curtain. And that’s a comforting thought.

6 12 2007
Dion

Frankly, I’ve wondered the same thing regarding motion-capture technology — it strikes me as reinventing the wheel, unless you want to realise something like Gollum onscreen.

I can only come up with two reasons: 1) it allows greater interaction between the characters and an all-CG environment and 2) it allows for real 3D in a fantasy setting.

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