The new film version of Beowulf uses top-of-the-line computer imaging techniques to turn accomplished actors and actresses into unconvincing plastic dolls, employs the talents of two exceptional writers to come up with a story that has all the emotional impact of a cheeseball sword’n’sandal cheapie like Hercules vs. The Sea Monster, and gives Robert Zemeckis another chance to show us all what happens when a good filmmaker allows technology to become the tail wagging his muse.
No, I didn’t much like Beowulf. The film showcases a wide array of self-defeating storytelling choices, and its razzle-dazzle technology produces effects that can verge on photo-realism one minute and Grand Theft Auto the next. The opening sequence in Heorot, with its vinyl-skinned mannequins talking dirty and belching up mists of mead, plays like the unrated director’s cut of Shrek the Third that you never wanted to see. The eye eventually adjusts to the skin tones on Beowulf (with Ray Winstone, the pudgy gangster from Sexy Beast, emoting under the pixels) and the character becomes convincing, but Wealthow and Unferth could have stepped out of the latest straight-to-DVD Barbie movie, and I’ve seen merry- go-rounds with more convincing horses. Zemeckis strives so hard for realism that in one scene he even mimes the effect of a camera shifting focus from a foreground character to one in the background, but then he stages action scenes that play as weightless vido games. And at no point do we get a feel for the texture of life in this harsh world. The squalor and smelly closeness of medieval life are gone from this digitally-scrubbed universe. Like A Scanner Darkly, another promising film defeated by its own technology, Beowulf would have been drastically improved by live-action treatment.
But would even a substantial upgrade have been enough? An actor’s real face, instead of its digital twin, might have offered enough nuances to keep Beowulf from coming across as a World Wrestling Federation wannabe. The depiction of Grendel is a real coup — the hurt, desperately sad eyes peering out from the gnarled face give him just the right amount of pathos within the menace. But Grendel’s mother, whether embodied digitally or in any other form, is so badly conceived that not even the sight of Angelina Jolie dipped in gold paint can keep the mind from rebelling. There is no motiveless malignity in the Syd Field universe of screenwriting, so the dragon that kills Beowulf must somehow have sprung from Beowulf himself. How Freudian! How Jungian! How George Lucasian!
How fatuous! To show Beowulf battling monsters of his own creation (or of Hrothgar’s) is to miss the point of the entire poem. I know we’ve all read J.R.R. Tolkien’s essay “Beowulf: The Monsters and The Critics,” and while he doesn’t necessarily get the last word, he does get top honors for outlining the poem’s issues as starkly as possible. Beowulf is about a hero who seeks glory and, having gained it, acts with honor, because that is how men act. He doesn’t face his own monsters; he defeats those the world keeps throwing at him, until the inevitable moment when the ravages of age lead to his defeat. The “northern theory of courage,” as Tolkien put it, gave the monsters victory but not honor. Zemeckis, interested only in rummaging through his latest bag of tricks, gets neither.
ADDENDUM: Well, at least Doc Nokes got a good party out of the whole thing. There were even groupies!