Director: Robert Zemeckis
Starring: Ray Winstone, Anthony Hopkins, Robin Wright Penn, Angelina Jolie, John Malkovich, Brendan Gleeson, Crispin Glover, Alison Lohman
Running Time: 113 min.
** (out of ****)
I own a Playstation 2 but I hardly ever use it. Why? Well, for one I was never really that skilled at video games. Truthfully, I'm pretty awful. And second, I just don't like the way the images look. They're too crisp to really even be considered a video game, but look too fake to pass as the real thing. The movements are awkward and choppy and the designers' attempts to give the characters facial expressions are particularly pathetic. Hook me up with a good old school N.E.S. or a Nintendo 64 and I'm happy. So what does this have to do with Robert Zemeckis' motion capture adaptation of the Old English epic poem Beowulf? You see, this just may be the very first feature length Playstation 2 movie. And it also happens to be an unnecessary exercise in self-indulgence and silliness.
Zemeckis has always had a flirty relationship with groundbreaking technology in previous directorial efforts like Back To The Future, Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, Forrest Gump and Contact. But they were used sparingly (and carefully) to great effect, enhancing already wonderful films with great stories. That's why it's difficult for me to rationalize that the same man who prided himself on putting great storytelling first is responsible for an ill-conceived mess like this. We got a taste of it in The Polar Express a few years ago, but at least he was able to fall back on the fact it was an enchanting children's story.
Here he takes a serious sword and sandals epic into George Lucas territory where technology is king and actors are disposable. I should have known I was in for it when everyone kept telling me upon the film's theatrical release that "YOU HAVE TO SEE IT ON THE BIG SCREEN…AND IN 3-D!" or you won't like it. What does that say? And to think that Beowuf has been labeled as "the future of filmmmaking." If that's true then I'm jumping ship. Supposedly Zemeckis wasn't a fan of the original poem. That makes two of us. But his view is ironic considering both the poem and the film share an important common thread: They're both pretty much boring as hell. But even as bad this is, it isn't without its occasional moments. Especially one.
It's sixth century Denmark and King Hrothgar (Anthony Hopkins) presides over a celebration of drunken merriment in the newly constructed feasting hall with his warriors and his young queen Wealtheow (an airbrushed-looking Robin Wright Penn). Crashing the festivities is a REALLY ugly monster named Grendel (Crispin Glover) with serious mommy issues who, in the most graphic scene of this underratedly gruesome film, tears every partygoer limb from limb. Most of the battles in this film are so disgusting and graphic that the only possible explanation for it escaping an "R" rating is that the MPAA idiotically rationalized that everything was "fake" because of the motion capture technology.
Like 300 before it, this contains just as much blood and violence as some of the"torture porn" films the media has been whining about these past couple of years and even less of a plot. Seasoned warrior Beowulf (Ray Winstone) arrives by ship promising to slay Grendel and collect the hefty reward. He also has his sights set on the queen. The King's advisor Unferth (John Malkovich) is unimpressed by the arrogant warrior's boasts but he's soon proven wrong. However slaying Grendel is only the beginning of Beowulf's challenges, as he must contend with the monster's nude seductress of a mother (Angelina Jolie) who gives new meaning to the term "M.I.L.F." He's offered a deal that's very difficult to turn down even though he should.
With all this state of the art visual technology at his disposal how does Zemeckis choose to use it? By setting three quarters of the film in a dining hall. That's right, a dining hall! With all the beautiful landscape scenes this epic tale could potentially provide and with the technology at his hands to do it, Zemeckis wimps out. He instead assumes we'd be far more entertained watching a naked Beowulf run around the lunch room with his nether regions strategically covered as if he's auditioning for the next Austin Powers sequel. He does shift gears eventually, but it's to give us a final battle that drags on for eternity. Zemeckis seems to just be showing off the technology to either amuse himself or take us completely out of the story. Sometimes both like in a scene where he shows a gyrating woman's cleavage as she cleans a table. "Look, this technology is so awesome I can even make breasts LOOK REAL!" Congratulations Bob, your honorary technical Oscar is in the mail.
It is great to see Ray Winstone, a gifted supporting actor, finally get top billing, but forgive me if this isn't exactly what I envisioned for his first big starring role. He does commanding voice work, even if co-writers Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary give him clumsy dialogue worthy of a WWE Raw script and Beowulf is an egotistical jerk who's impossible to root for. Malkovich and especially Hopkins eerily resemble their real life counterparts to the point where it's downright creepy just looking at them. But Hopkins' King Hrothgar is by far the movie's most engaging, entertaining character and every time he's on screen it's a hoot.
Then there's Jolie. The motion capture version of her not only looks, but also acts better than the real thing and it's Zemeckis' most eye-pleasing visual achievement since Jessica Rabbit. It's the only moment of genius in the entire film and a glimmer of hope that maybe Jolie has finally given up in her ridiculous quest to be taken seriously as an actress and will go back to just entertaining us, which used to be her strong point. Sadly, this is her most exciting performance in years. And it's not even her…or at least not really.
I agree with Zemeckis that the original Beowulf story is dry and could use some freshening up but this isn't the kind of tale that benefits from this kind of technology. The story has potential and I couldn't help but think how much more interesting it would have been if the actual actors were in a live action adaptation of it. Something is lost here and the technology still isn't at the point where these avatars, with their dead eyes and lack of facial expressions, can duplicate a human performance and invest the story with that required emotion.
The original plan was for co-writer Roger Avary to direct a smaller-scale live action version from his own script but it got caught in production hell, freeing Avary up to direct The Rules of Attraction instead while Zemeckis took over the reins. No complaints there, but I do have the suspicion that whatever Avary had planned would have far surpassed this. I can see how some audiences would enjoy this, as it does have a kind of goofy tongue-in-cheek quality and sense of humor to it that 300 lacks. On all other fronts though, they're the same exact film. If you liked that, there's little doubt you'll enjoy Beowulf.