Director : Robert Zemeckis
Screenplay : Neil Gaiman & Roger Avary
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 2007
Stars : Ray Winstone (Beowulf), Anthony Hopkins (Hrothgar), John Malkovich (Unferth), Robin Wright Penn (Wealthow), Brendan Gleeson (Wiglaf), Crispin Glover (Grendel), Alison Lohman (Ursula) and Angelina Jolie (Grendel’s Mother)
All hail technology and what it hath wrought! Bow down at the altar of infinitely malleable pixels and the bounty they provide: Impossible visuals! Epic landscapes! Monsters that heretofore have only resided in man’s imagination! And slightly rubbery-looking humans who in close-up offer every nuance of minute photorealistic detail--right down to the finest of pores and individual flowing hairs--that the best motion-picture camera can already capture. Yes, we are at the point of technological nirvana in which it makes sense to someone somewhere to use millions of dollars in money and thousands of hours of labor to digitally recreate that which an old-fashioned (dare I say outdated?) technology already provides.
And so comes Robert Zemeckis’s Beowulf, an epic experiment in the possibilities and limitations of so-called “performance capture” digital animation, which uses human actors as models that are then replaced with on-screen digital replicas. The exact purpose of this process continues to elude me, except that it allows the filmmakers to “improve” on the actors by changing their bodies and avoiding all that mess of dealing with hairstylists and make-up artists. Having already partially conquered this landscape with 2004’s The Polar Express, which brought the beautiful paintings of Chris Van Allsburg’s children’s book to life and then turned them into a numbing roller-coaster ride populated with slightly zombie-ish child protagonists, Zemeckis is determined to prove that flesh and blood has no place in the cinema. Having learned from the box-office success of The Polar Express’s rebirth in 3-D on the IMAX, he upped the ante by releasing Beowulf in all its three-dimensional glory in hundreds of theaters. One of my college professors always said “If you can’t make it good, make if funny.” Zemeckis has taken a similar tact, except his approach is, “If you can’t make it good, make it 3-D.”
Only Zemeckis has perhaps unintentionally also made Beowulf quite funny. Take, for example, the ludicrous sequence in which the heroic warrior of the title (Ray Winstone) strips naked in order to battle the rampaging monster Grendel (Crispin Glover). With the need to deliver a PG-13-rated movie, Zemeckis obviously couldn’t show Beowulf in all his naked glory (although, in typical gender-related hypocrisy, we see pretty much see every square inch of Angelina Jolie’s digital doppelganger from head to spiky toe). So, he and the animators were sure to carefully place some object or character in the foreground to hide Beowulf’s manhood. Only the opening credits sequences of the first two Austin Powers movies did a better job of turning hide-the-salami into a hilarious spectacle, except in those movies the humor was on purpose.
But, I get ahead of myself. As most know, Beowulf is based on the epic eighth-century poem that has was handed down orally for generations and eventually committed to paper by an anonymous writer. It is the bane of high school students everywhere (and the target of one of Woody Allen’s funniest quips in Annie Hall), yet screenwriters Neil Gaiman (Stardust) and Roger Avary (Pulp Fiction) clearly realized that, stripped of its Old English poetry and heavy historical allusions and sexed up with nudity and graphic violence, it could be made truly kickin’ (an international coproduction last year called Beowulf & Grendel did roughly the same thing, but without all the digital shenanigans).
Thus, we get the rough outlines of the poem as dimly remembered from the Cliff’s Notes passed around during high school lit class: The Danish King Hrothgar (Anthony Hopkins) calls in the warrior Beowulf to kill a rampaging monster named Grendel who is messing up the debauched king’s good times by raiding his mead hall and killing everyone in nasty ways. Beowulf is successful, but then he incurs the wrath of Grendel’s witchy mother (Jolie), who is here envisioned as a slinky, naked temptress with a braid of hair like a devil’s tale. The story culminates in a battle between the aged Beowulf and a massive dragon, and I would be remiss if I didn’t say that this high-flying duel wasn’t voraciously thrilling. The only problem is that it’s thrilling on the level of a theme park ride: It exhilarates the senses and leaves you close to breathless, but with little if any lasting impact.
If Zemeckis and Co.’s primary goal was to make you leave the theater muttering “That was cool!” they have at least partially succeeded. Whenever Beowulf is overwhelming your eyes and ears with action spectacle that could never be captured with an actual camera, it comes close to justifying its existence. The rest of the time you may very well be numbed with boredom and discomfort (the middle section of the nearly two-hour film is laborious and dull, especially since you’re forced to watch those slightly uncanny digital doubles trying to convey the essence of living, breathing entities and failing mightily). But, whether it’s exciting or boring, it’s hard to forget that you’re watching little more than a 21st-century version of those awful 3-D movies from the ’50s, whose makers also felt that, as long as they could wow the audience with the perception of a third dimension, there really wasn’t any need to make a good movie.
|Beowulf Unrated Director’s Cut DVD|
|Beowulf is also available on HD-DVD.|
|Subtitles||English, French, Spanish|
|Distributor||Paramount Home Entertainment|
|Release Date||February 26, 2008|
|VIDEO & AUDIO|
|Given the amount of effort that went into ensuring ever bit of detail on the screen, one can only imagine that a similar amount of effort went into mastering the DVD. Presented in anamorphic widescreen (2.35:1), Beowulf looks excellent. The image is crystal clear with incredible detail, right now to individual hairs and pores on everyone’s skin. Colors are beautifully rendered, whether they be fiery reds and yellows or the icy blues of Grendel’s mother’s cave. Black levels look solid throughout, with excellent shadow detail, which is particularly important given the number of scenes that take place in dim surroundings. The Dolby Digital 5.1 surround soundtrack is sure to give your system a workout. The overwhelming nature of the bombastic fight scene between Beowulf and Grendel, with all their screaming and crashing, is matched by the subtle details of quieter scenes, like the first meeting of Beowulf and Grendel’s mother.|
|While the film itself isn’t that good, the special effects used to create it are certainly intriguing, and it’s not surprising that they’re at the center of the DVD’s limited, but worthwhile supplements. You can start with “The Hero’s Journey: The Making of Beowulf,” a 24-minute behind-the-scenes featurette that focuses on the actual shooting of the film in an enormous, infrared camera-filled room with actors covered with sensors to record their performances (which is termed “capping”). Trust me: you haven’t seen anything until you’ve seen Sir Anthony Hopkins cackling like a madman in a sensor-covered black body suit with his face a grid of plastic dots. Highlights include the crew dealing with the horses’ inescapable bodily functions during filming and a surprise visit by Tom Hanks, although Angelina Jolie is notably absent. Zemeckis, however, gives a great summation of the film’s appeal: “It’s all about eating, drinking, killing, and fornicating.” “Beasts of Burden: Designing the Creatures of Beowulf” is a 7-minute featurette about how the artists came up with the designs for Grendel, Grendel’s mother, the dragon, and the sea monster, while “The Art of Beowulf” focuses on general production design. In the 5-minute featurette “The Origins of Beowulf,” writers Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary, director Robert Zemeckis, and producer Steve Starkey discuss the centuries-old appeal of the myth of Beowulf and the challenge of adapting the narrative to the screen, while the 2-minute featurette “Creating the Ultimate Beowulf” explains why motion-capture was needed because no human on the planet could live up to Zemeckis’ expectations for his hero. There are six deleted scenes, all presented in anamorphic widescreen, although they were all cut early enough in the production that they never made it past basic, animatic-style animation.|
Copyright ©2008 James Kendrick
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