Saturday, November 17, 2007

REVIEW: Beowulf (2007)

Hear me, professors of English Literature and other assorted Classicists who (for some reason) may be part of my readership: The liberties taken and themes revised by this new reworking of the Olde English epic of record have a high probability of making some of you bang your heads against the wall. However, you should get that done with quickly and cheer up - not just because, revisionism and all, it's a DAMN good little picture; but for the added bonus that you will never, ever have to spend an entire class period JUST on how to properly pronounce these characters' names.

Robert Zemeckis' "Beowulf" is a collision of two absolute extremes: A story so literally older-than-dirt it was probably already old when it was written down in the Olde English manuscripts it was first rediscovered in centuries ago... rendered for the screen using a technology so NEW it practically arrives onscreen still moist with it's own afterbirth. Most major advancements in the art and technology of filmmaking are first glimpsed AFTER the rougher, experimental spots of it's evolution have already occured, but not so "Beowulf;" we meet it at the water's edge as it drags itself up from the Primordial Sea and watch as it struggles - and finally succeeds - with breathing oxygen.

Zemeckis has been evangelizing both the return of 3D movies and the use of actor-assisted "motion capture" computer animation for years now, and fired the first salvo with his well-intentioned but colossally misfired "Polar Express." The techology - a CGI cousin to the ancient technique of "rotoscoping" which involves hooking live actors up to computers to translate their body and facial movements to their photo-realistic 'cartoon' counterparts - has gotten yards better, certainly, but the more vital component is that this time he's working from a script worth filmming regardless of the style: A complex, brawny, bawdy, action-heavy and darkly-humorous retelling of the familiar Epic Poem from Roger Avary and Neil Gaiman.

They've kept the important parts: With the Dark Ages in full swing, the Dane subjects of King Hrothgar (Anthony Hopkins) are under seige by Grendel (Crispin Glover) a marauding, man-eating troll who is driven to fits of rage by the Danes' penchant for nighttime merriment. From across the sea comes a platoon of Geats (Swedes, basically) under the command of Beowulf, (Ray Winstone,) a boastful warrior of legendary strength and bravery who vows to slay the monster and soon finds himself also contending with the creature's much more-powerful mother (Angelina Jolie.) In this telling, that's just the beginning of the proud hero's problems...

The tone of all this is roughly equivalent to "300," another deliberate re-dressing of The Heroic Ideal into modern-day WWE machismo, but this time around the screenplay adds a healthy degree of introspection, cynicism and depth that becomes a unifying theme: Beowulf may be a walking legend, but he's a braggart and bullshit artist of the highest order who never misses an opportunity to exaggerate his own feats and abilities - a mighty task in and of itself, since he's already strong enough to beat a monster twice his size to death with his bare hands naked in reality. He does his strutting not among a stoic lineup of good and Godly medieval lords but rather two nations of hard-drinking, hard-partying, harder-fighting dark age pagans who at their best moments resemble nothing so much as a fraternity of old-school Hells Angels. The Spartans may have known how to die, but clearly the Geats have the market cornered on how to live.

Avary and Gaiman's script is so good, giving these ancient characters a much more cinematic level of depth and relatability and finally solving the issue of how to tell the whole story (yes, the Third Monster is in here) in a way that's both dramatically-connected and workable within a traditional three-act structure, that it's kind of unfortunate that it's admirable qualities are destined to be overlooked (at least for now) in favor of the startlingly odd but effective manner in which the film is rendered visually: A starkly realistic medieval world is here created, and populated by characters who's physical appearance exists in some neutral space between cartoon characters and photo-real human beings.

Adding to the slight eeriness of this effect is the decision to have some characters resemble their actor dopplegangers with alarming familiarity: Hrothgar really does look like a frightfully out of shape Hopkins, while John Malkovich's syconphantic (and yet sympathetic) Unferth looks like... well, John Malkovich with a weirdly enlarged head. And while Grendel's Mother is in this version a shape-shifting demon sorceress, she spends most of the film looking exactly like an all-but stark-naked Angelina Jolie because, well... what the hell are you going to "improve" there? Give credit where it's due: Rebuilding a digital replica of Angelina Jolie to prove your prowess at animating the human form is a bit like trying to prove your ability as a painter by creating an exact duplicate of the Mona Lisa; and they basically succeed - dubious distinction or not, this is the most deliberately sexy (nominally) animated character to grace a mainstream movie screen since Jessica Rabbit.

The smart script and entrancing visuals make this a great movie, but if you can see it in 3D you'll get the added fun of a rollicking "ride" as well: The process is best for creating depth of field and giving a greater sense of scope and movement to the kinetic, brawling fight scenes; but Zemeckis knows his book of tricks and keeps a steady stream of classically lowbrow 3D touchstones flying (literally) in our faces: Yeah, arrows whiz by our heads and spearheads come right up to our eyes, but also be prepared to be "splashed" by torrents of spilled demon blood, feiry explosions and even an extended moment of heaving 3D cleavage. Clothes drop, eyeballs explode, skin shreds, bosoms bounce, muscles ripple and blood gushes... it's probably the most violent, ribald PG-13 movie ever made, and every drop of it is coming right at you.

A great looking movie with a smart script and unique vibe all it's own. Mature-themed animation has struggled to find an audience in America, and "Beowulf" is so good it could very well be the project that finally turns it into a viable genre. This is one of those moments when filmmaking as an industry and as an art form takes a step toward the future, folks, and you really ought to see it.


1 comment:

Clifton said...

I'd kind of been on the fence as to whether or not I was going to see this, and your review has basically decided for me, so thanks!

Also, I appreciate the comment on my gaming blog. You raise an interesting point, but I do feel like Nintendo, for all their innovation, is a company living in the past for the most part.