Wednesday, November 21, 2007


Sometime last week or weekend, I went to see the new movie Beowulf. The first thing that I need to say about it is: this is not a cartoon for kids! This is a very, very, very adult movie!

The film takes its departure from the early English epic about a Danish hero named Beowulf (natch), who comes to the rescue when King Hrothgar's meadhall is terrorized by a monster named Grendel. As far as I know, the original epic ends with Beowulf vanquishing Grendel. In the movie, however, Grendel bites it rather early on. The major burden of the film, then, has to do with "what happens next" Beowulf went to the lair of Grendel's demon mother to destroy her, and ends up bringing a curse on himself and his kingdom for the rest of his life...and how he finally ends the curse at tremendous personal cost.

As I said, this is an ADULT movie. It has a lot of sexual references, lewd behavior, and nudity, plus really scary monsters and extreme violence. It isn't even a cartoon, really. Like The Polar Express and, I think, Monster House, Beowulf was actually shot with live actors, using virtual-camera technology similar to what Peter Jackson used in Lord of the Rings (for Gollum) and King Kong (for the big ape). The entire look of the film was then added digitally, from scenery to costumes and the physical appearance of the actors - though some of the characters actually do resemble the actors who play them.

The ultimate aim of this school of filmmaking, I think, is to achieve the most realistic possible simulation of a "live action" film, while maintaining the type of control over every aspect of the visuals that has heretofore required animation. The live actors' form-hugging costumes covered in tiny sensors, provide real-time, moving models on which to hang the digitally-animated characters' faces and bodies.

Like The Polar Express, this film was directed by Robert Zemeckis, late of What Lies Beneath and Forrest Gump, to say nothing of Back to the Future and Death Becomes Her. Zemeckis has made a career out of pushing the limits of "special effects," to the point where now his entire movie is a special effect. The technology is not yet perfected, however. I suppose it takes experiments like this to keep the wheels of progress turning. I still find the characters' faces wooden, or at least limited in their emotive range. The eyes are especially troubling; the queen in this picture, for instance, sometimes looks crosseyed.

Apart from that, this Beowulf is very effective. Grendel is terrifying, disgusting, and pitiful at the same time; one of his appearances made the audience gasp aloud. The creature at the end of the movie (I'm not giving the surprise away) is also quite scary, and puts up a very exciting fight. And the main character has a very impressive presence. The story touches some deep chords - I think particularly of Hrothgar's parting words to Beowulf: "This curse is no longer mine."

I recognized several members of the cast by the look of their characters alone: Anthony Hopkins, Robin Wright Penn, and Angelina Jolie. Some of the actors were more recognizable by voice: Brendan Gleeson, John Malkovich, and Allison Lohman. The title character, however, had me stumped. The actor doesn't look like the hero he plays, but he bears a slight resemblance to Russell Crowe, and as I watched this movie I kept thinking, "This guy sounds like somebody vaguely similar to Russell Crowe." That was as close as I got to identifying Ray Winstone before the end credits. Maybe on some level I knew it all along, but it makes you wonder...

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