Friday, January 4, 2008


I once thanked Neil Gaiman for helping keep myth alive in our modern age. Rather humbly (and perhaps feeling I was overblowing the sentiment), Mr. Gaiman replied that myth was doing rather well on its own without his help.
Well, regardless of whether Mr. Gaiman is keeping myth alive or simply prodding it enough so it might run the treadmill and do some cardio more often in its old age, Beowulf, much like the beastial Grendel, is certainly a curious and interesting hybrid.
It utilizes the modern technology of mo-cap (or motion capture), to retell an ancient tale, so as to give 21st century audiences a tragic saga of how a father’s sins comes back, not just to haunt the son, but entire kingdoms as well. More potently, it’s also a tale about the humanity of heroes and monsters, and how that can, sadly enough, be their ultimate downfall.

I quite liked Beowulf, let’s be clear about that.
It does have its failings though, and perhaps tellingly, its flaws are rooted in the “modern technology” half of its cinematic DNA.
While mo-cap is the closest computer graphics can come to emulate humanity, it’s still a ways off from conveying genuine emotion. CGI characters can have the prettiest, silkiest hair in the world, but when you need them to emote, you may as well be asking a mannequin to deliver Shakespeare.
The simulated facial muscles still aren’t up to snuff to garner any Oscar acting nods. It’s a criminal waste, when even a great vocal delivery can come off like a Tara Reid performance when the construct on screen zombies its way through the role.
And their eyes…
Admittedly, the dead eye was far creepier in Robert Zemeckis’ earlier mo-cap effort, The Polar Express, but it’s still noticeable here in Beowulf.

In fact, the only performance that manages to punch its way through the pixels is Brendan Gleeson’s Wiglaf. His stubborn refusal to acknowledge anything that might tarnish the idea of Beowulf the Hero is just heart-breaking.
And while Sir Anthony Hopkins’ vocal delivery is fine, there‘s just something about the character of Hrothgar on screen that doesn’t quite capture the sad tragedy of the aged and broken king. The role of John Malkovich’s Unferth meanwhile, is kept to a woeful minimum.
Beyond that trio, nearly all the other actors are pretty much sabotaged by the limitations of mo-cap. And I say “nearly all” since, again rather tellingly, Ray Winstone and Angelina Jolie have some of the more questionable vocal deliveries*; Winstone because he sometimes eats his words, occasionally leaving us with a growling mess where he sounds like a WWE superstar, while Jolie’s strange accent (was Grendel’s mother Romanian?) can’t quite mask the fact that it’s Angelina Jolie.
What can I say? So all-pervasive is its power that we can feel the Hollywood Star Syndrome as far back as the 6th century. (And apparently, women’s fashion is just as powerful, as Grendel’s mum seems quite taken with high heels, enough to shapeshift her feet into them…)
Of course, part of that fault also lies in the decision to make Grendel’s mum look exactly like Angelina Jolie.

I mean, when you’ve got the tools to play around with physiognomies—look at Beowulf, ‘cause that body certainly doesn’t belong to Ray Winstone—why keep to the real thing? And why keep to it when there’s the real possibility of a disconnect that endangers the suspension of disbelief? (Even Hrothgar is not immune to the Syndrome, since, damn, but doesn’t he look like Sir Anthony Hopkins?)
Why use this technology if you aren’t really going to fully play around with it? Why not just do it live-action, that way, you get the full benefit of the actors’ performances. Or, there’s always the Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow/300 greenscreen gambit.
It’s kind of frustrating when all Zemeckis seems content to use the presumably liberating freedom of mo-cap for is to do some fancy “camera” work, something he was already toying around with as far back as Contact. (Sure, the sea monster battle was a doozy, but there were a hell of a lot more “ooh, let’s follow this rat, which gets pinched by a bird, then soar dizzyingly through the air, till we reach the poor monster with the acute hearing so far, far away” sort of shots.)

But to be fair to Zemeckis, like I said, I quite liked Beowulf.
Some sequences just work. Like Grendel’s first attack on the mead hall, strobelit courtesy of some mystic fire. That stretch successfully conveys the danger and savagery of a mythic time of monsters, when there was clearly much to fear beyond the light of the roaring camp fire. (On that note though, Grendel might have done well if he’d just opened a club somewhere. Hire a killer DJ, and the gold would’ve come rolling in.)
The battle between Beowulf and Grendel also kicked some bare a$$. Not only was it a commendable sequence, but the synthetic Beowulf also gave Viggo Mortensen some competition for Best Buck Nekked Fight for the Year 2007. (I fought valiantly to stop myself from using the word “stiff” in that sentence. Sorry.)

See? I’m being snarky. If Beowulf had done its job properly, the snark would be kept to a minimum.
Still, and this stands to be repeated: I quite liked Beowulf.
Once we hit the point where the shared deception of Beowulf and Hrothgar is acknowledged, and the subsequent madness comes to pass, I for one, stepped fully into the story. And the reason for that, I think, is two-fold.
One: at that point, the narrative enters fascinating territory.
And two: enough running time had passed that I’d acclimated myself to the limitations of current mo-cap tech, so I could adjust my expectations accordingly.

In the end though, I’m quite happy that after Stardust, there’s another film Mr. Gaiman worked on that I can say I enjoyed. (For Mirrormask lovers, see my Stardust review in the Archive.)
Mo-cap may not have been entirely successful in breathing proper life into the legend, but in this 21st century of ours, it’s allowed a creaky old myth to flex its pixellated muscles just enough to make it look viable—and gosh darn it, pretty cool!—to scores of PS3- and Xbox-attuned eyes.

* Actually, even Crispin Glover’s vocal delivery of Grendel is troublesome as his words are so garbled sometimes as to be nearly unintelligible. I’ll be so thankful for the subtitles when the DVD is unleashed upon the land…
On the plus side, good on Winstone! I mean, from voicing Narnia’s Mr. Beaver to Beowulf…
Talk about a step up.

Parting shot: Though I didn’t mention him at all in the review, Roger Avary co-wrote Beowulf’s script with Neil Gaiman. My apologies.
Unless you had anything to do with Grendel’s mum’s high heels, in which case, you should probably be grateful, as I’d rather not be mentioned at all, than be mentioned in relation to a bit of anachronistic women’s fashion.
To quote Bryan Fuller in an all-together different context: Let the snark reign!

(Beowulf OS courtesy of; images courtesy of

1 comment:

leng said...

i really agreed with you that they should have used the real actors since the CGs just cant capture the facial expressions of the characters. then again there were some pretty awesome camera shots which i don't know if live cameras would be able to capture. i also enjoyed it after just accepting that the character's expressions will stay stagnant :).