This is a bad movie. I have been trying to decide if it dethroned Christopher Lambert's futuristic "Beowulf" as the worst Beowulf adaptation ever, and I finally came to the decision that this movie is marginally ... very marginally ... better. This film has three things going for it:
- First is the theme. "All we have are our stories" is the refrain, and there is a kind of Beowulfian call to glory found there. That's not a bad theme if you are going to be doing a Beowulf film. It's relatively close to the poem in terms of thematic elements.
- The film follows the basic outline of the story. The Danes are attacked by Grendel, Beowulf and friends come to defeat him. After they kill him, they celebrate, only to find out that Grendel's mother (called by the name "Hag" in the film) isn't too happy, so they have to kill her as well.
- There is a sly reference to Burton Raffel at the outset of the film. An old man is showing Beowulf a cave in which a giant snake lives, and as Beowulf goes on to kill the snake, he turns to one of his companions and warns them to keep an eye on "Raffel," because he does not trust him. I assume this is an homage to Burton Raffel -- perhaps they used his translation to write the screenplay.
The great badness of the film, though, was not the mixing of metaphors or the cue-card-reading acting; it was the "King's Weapon." Early in the film King Higlac gives a special weapon to Beowulf to use in defeating Grendel. The weapon looks like a crossbow with a rifle stock, three strings, and big Cadillac-looking fins/blades at the front. I started laughing as soon as I saw the thing, and nearly fell out of my chair when Beowulf took a practice shot at a wooden dingy, which exploded.
Yes, "the King's Weapon" is a crossbow that fires explosive bolts. Every time it seems like the action of the film might be slowing, the movie makes an excuse to whip out the Weapon and blow something up -- usually a tree. When Beowulf does kill Grendel, it is by shooting him with the weapon (which merely burns him, rather than killing him) before chopping his arm off with his sword "Nagling." No hand-to-hand combat here. This is, by the way, the third time Beowulf gets a point-blank shot at Grendel. Since the King's Weapon has a scope (no, I'm not kidding), we can only conclude that Beowulf is the world's worst shot.
The setting was strangely interesting. Heorot Hall was designed to look very Roman, and indeed Beowulf compares the Golden Age of Hrothgar's kingdom to that of Rome. The Viking ship seems to have been lifted from the set of a pirate movie. Rather than the cliche dragon-prowed ship, they go with a three-masted vessel that looks like it should have been sailing the Spanish Main. Wouldn't Jack Sparrow have been surprised to get a shot from the King's Weapon across his bow?
Some other interesting things to note:
Though IMDb lists Marina Sirtis as "Queen Wealhtheow," they change her name to "Queen Onela" in the film. They also transform her from a strong, politically-saavy woman into a madwoman with some limited prophetic powers. Her madness seems to disappear after the first quarter of the movie, though. Apparently Beowulf brought her some anti-schizophrenia medication.
Hrothgar has two sons, one named "Renn," and the other named "Unferth." Unferth has the characteristics of the person by that name in the poem (he gets into a drunken debate with Beowulf over the Brecca swimming contest, he has a partial rehabilitation by the end, etc.). When they were young men, Renn and Unferth went off to battle Grendel, but Unferth abandoned Renn and he was killed.
The film has a "dark secret" that is introduced and revealed near the end. The secret doesn't really make a lot of sense, and it unnecessarily besmirches the name of Shild Scheffing, so I suspect it is in there to make Hrothgar a more complicated figure.
Grendel and his mother look pretty good. Grendel looks more like a giant werwolf with a monkey tail than a troll. He has these things dangling from his elbows which at first appeared to be additional tails, but which I later took to be long tufts of hair. Grendel's mother, on the other hand, looks like a giant bat. Neither she nor Grendel is aquatic; Grendel lives in the woods and strings up his victims like a spider, and Hag (Grendel's mother) lives in a kind of canyon.
The King's Weapon, though it does wound Hag, is not the killing weapon. Instead there is a special sword in her lair (conveniently displayed, lest Beowulf miss it) which is named "Eotens."
One of Beowulf's companions is named "Finn," and he is Higlac's nephew. He and Unferth are the only interesting characters in the film, and indeed, by the end we realize it is Finn who has been telling the story. Finn's main job is to be our eyes and ears, as well as doing normal sidekick duty (e.g. getting captured to give the hero motivation to save the day).
So, in summary, Grendel is not quite as bad as Beowulf, but in the same league.
*I know the cliche is to donate one's body to science. Screw science. Once you're dead, what good is it to you? At that point, you'll need religious brownie points.