United States, 2007
Directed By: Robert Zemeckis
Written By: Neil Gaiman & Roger Avary
Starring: Ray Winstone, Anthony Hopkins, Angelina Jolie, Robin Wright Penn, John Malkovich
Running Time: 113 minutes
Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence including disturbing images, some sexual material and nudity
Note: This review was originally written for the theatrical release, which was in digital 3D. On DVD you will not have that option, making the film even less appealing.
How interesting would you find the cinematic adaptation of a 1000 year old poem that spans nearly 4000 lines? No? What if the writers took liberal license with the text, tossed in plenty of gore and nudity, used the latest technology to make the film an entirely digital affair, and did it in 3D to boot? If this sounds like a sideshow novelty to you, you’re on the right track. Light on substance but popping at the seams with an obscene amount of style, Beowulf will appeal to 13 year old boys and men who act like 13 year old boys, but not many others.
I, unlike the rest of the human race with a basic high school education, had never read Beowulf. Wikipedia tells me that the poem involves the titular hero battling and slaying three different monsters: the troll Grendel, his mother, and an unnamed dragon. The film retains this three-part structure but deviates in every other respect, namely in which monsters are actually slain. Writers Neil Gaiman (Mirrormask) and Roger Avary (Pulp Fiction) have attempted to humanize the archetypical Beowulf by ‘revealing’ the reasons for the hero’s monster hunting. Whereas the poem is content to let Beowulf kill the baddies for simply existing (they are monsters, after all), the film has to let us know why. Their inventive, if liberal, adaptation would have been more successful if not for Robert Zemeckis’ (Forrest Gump, The Polar Express) heavy-handed direction and painfully obvious obsession with the latest advances in eye-candy technology.
The ‘uncanny valley’ is a theory by Japanese roboticist Masohiro Mori dealing with the emotional response of humans to robots, although it applies to lifelike computer animation as well. Wikipedia (it can be your friend too, if you let it) says that “as a robot is made more humanlike in its appearance and motion, the emotional response from a human being to the robot will become increasingly positive and empathic, until a point is reached beyond which the response quickly becomes that of strong repulsion.” In terms of the film, Anthony Hopkins looks like himself and sounds like himself, but he isn’t himself. There is a lifelessness to the characters, an uncanniness that makes it impossible to relate to them emotionally. Beowulf could be the poster child for the uncanny valley.
That would be enough of a problem in and of itself, but Zemeckis chucks in a good amount of heavy-handed 300 aping to seal the deal. Ray Winstone (King Arthur, The Departed) doing his best King Leonidas impersonation screams out no less than three times – three times! – “I…..AM…..BEOWULF!” Replace ‘I’ with ‘this,’ ‘am’ with ‘is’, and ‘Beowulf’ with ‘Sparta’ and you’ll get the picture. The heavy-handedness continues when Angelina Jolie pops in as Grendel’s mother. If ever a movie existed for the sole purpose of creating digital breasts, this is it. Conspicuous close-ups abound, and while not every jot and tittle is on display, the 13 year old boys in the audience aren’t going to care. “Did you see that? Angelina Jolie was naked!” the conversations might go afterwards. Technically it’s not real, which is how the MPAA must have justified giving Beowulf its PG-13 rating, but they ought to be ashamed of themselves.
The film does come through in the action department (although the talking bits are made that much more dull by comparison), and connoisseurs of video games will find much to enjoy. The blood letting and monster-gut spilling are copious, and Zemeckis certainly knows how to work an effective camera angle. Being in 3D (which, honestly, is the only way to really see it) ups the intensity significantly and the final battle with the dragon is truly something to behold. Devoid of all emotion, of course, but an impressive spectacle nonetheless.
A special effects novelty, Beowulf is not a sign of things to come, and with its $150 million dollar price tag it’s hard to imagine a live action version at half the price wouldn’t have been more effective. Ultimately it’s like eating one of those giant chocolate bunnies you get at Easter: tasty on the outside but hollow in the middle, and after eating it you feel like puking.