Sunday, November 18, 2007

Beowulf Movie Review

Friday night I saw the Zemeckis Beowulf (in 2D) and, while it wasn't terrible, neither was it very good. All Beowulf films can be divided into two categories: the bad, and the mediocre. We still await the version that breaks beyond the mediocre. Once the breathless hype is over, this film will be remembered as one of the mediocre group.


LOTS OF SPOILERS AHEAD!


Spectacle

Let's start with spectacle. When looking at all the reviews before the movie, a number of them said something along the lines of "brainless movie with great special effects." While I must confess I did not see it in 3D, I cannot agree with that assessment. The film is not entirely brainless, but the special effects do not work to the net good of the film.

I'm not a fan of 3D movies, mostly because I don't like the ways in which the shots are put together. In order to have scenes in which things appear to fly off the screen, the films require lots of shots with stark perspective, which just gets annoying after a while. The gimmick, to my eye, spoils the look of the movie -- doubly so when you see it in 2D as I did, or as DVD viewers will.

On the other hand, I am a big fan of motion-capture CGI. I like the way that the actors can still practice their craft. Used properly, motion-capture is a painterly way to make a film, essentially using computers to paint the costumes on the actors. Indeed, very complex latex and foam traditional costuming can be more restrictive on the actor than CGI.

That being said, for all his excitement about these technologies, Zemeckis has once again shown that they master him, rather than the reverse. Most of this film could have -- and should have -- been live action. Watching this film is a little like watching your friend play World of Warcraft ... unless you are playing yourself, it just looks stiff and boring. The worst was Wealtheow, who appeared to have a face carved out of wood.

The only two characters for whom this technology worked were Grendel's Mother and the dragon. In the case of Grendel's Mother, it works best when she's in her cave. When she's in the sunlight, she's even more flat-looking than Wealtheow. The animation allows Angelina Jolie to appear as close to nudity as one could possibly get without actually being nude. It also allows her look to be, shall we say, "enhanced." Probably the best visual choice made in the entire film is the look of her braid. At first she appears to have a long, serpentine, prehensile tail, but it turns out to be a long, serpentine, prehensile braid, recalling the braid of Jolie's most famous character, Lara Croft. A lot of time on the Tomb Raider video game is spent staring at Lara Croft's braid and butt ... ditto here.

With the dragon, the CGI allows for a near photo-realistic look (unlike the sea monsters and Grendel, who look cartoonish). Fortunately, the dragon comes at the climactic ending of film, so viewers will be rewarded for waiting around. As for the look of the dragon, I rather liked its wyvern-like connection of wings with "arms," as well as its tail that spreads out into a tailfin for the underwater scenes.

Zemeckis has to learn to use CGI when it is appropriate, rather than at every opportunity. Polar Express just looked creepy, and this one just looks like a video game. Also, if you want to get Sean Bean to play Beowulf, you should cast Sean Bean in the role, rather than having Ray Winstone play it and then pasting Sean Bean's image on top of him.

Dialogue

I just want to get this section out of the way. The dialogue is absolutely terrible. Audience members were laughing at it ... and not just the parts that were supposed to be funny. By the second half, people in my section were groaning every time the line "I am Beowulf" was repeated. I heard someone say, "that was the worst movie I've ever seen in my life," after which time he mockingly repeated the "I am Beowulf" line. Now, while it's not the worst movie ever (nor even a particularly bad movie), that line did become unbearably tedious.

Plot

Yes, I know dialogue is connected to the plot, but there is such a disparity that I thought they should be separated. The film has a weird kind of unity of place, which I think works as a corrective to the disunity of time in the story. One of the problems of adapting Beowulf is that big 50-year jump in time. Here, the writers keep that jump in time, but they shrink the world of Beowulf down into about 5 square miles. Except for Beowulf's journey there by sea, a flashback to his swimming race with Brecca, and a single scene of battle with the Frisians, the entire film takes place close enough to see (and hear) Heorot Hall. It cuts back on the potential for epic sweep in the film, but it keeps that 50-year gap from seeming like a disjuncture. Instead, it allows for the plotline to be cyclical, connecting Beowulf back with Hrothgar, the king/father he replaced.

The theme of the plot seems to be the unreliability of storytelling. Every time someone tells a story there's something life out ... a lie of omission, a carefully-crafted parsing of words, or an exaggeration. By the end of the film, we expect stories to be unreliable. When the scop (annoyingly mis-pronounced /skop/) finally tells the tale of Beowulf, the only geniune inclusion of the language of the poem in the film, we are left to understand that his version is wrong. After Beowulf has an encounter with a Frisian who wants to kill him, Beowulf broods a bit, humiliates the Frisian, then sends him on his way, saying that the man now has a story to tell -- the understanding is that the man will lie and exaggerate.

When I read the comic book adaptation of the screenplay, I thought it worked, but I didn't like it -- mostly because I didn't like the snotty way in which it called the poem into question, while leaving its own telling above suspicion. I'm happy that the original screenplay clarifies a few points (or perhaps mystifies them) to make it much more palatable. The best example is the account of Beowulf's fight with the sea monsters. Beowulf lies, and tells them that the reason he lost was that he had to fight all those monsters -- but the movie shows us in a flashback that Beowulf might still have won, except that he stopped to have sex with a mermaid (one that has a very similar tail to the dragon at the end, incidentally). When Unferth scoffingly asks if it was 20 sea monsters, Beowulf says that it was nine. At that point, Wiglaf mutters that the last time he told the story, it was only three. What is interesting here isn't just that we learn that Beowulf likes to embellish his stories, but also that in the flashback it was more than three. Did he fight three sea monsters? Nine? Did he even fight any, or did he just stop to sleep with the mermaid? Or is the entire story a lie? We can't be certain. In other words, the supposely-reliable flashback itself is called into question. It's not Rashomon, but it's a clever postmodern undermining of its own tale.

The plot does has some weaknesses. For example, we understand that Grendel is angry because his hearing is hypersensitive, and the parties at Heorot hurt his ears. Now, I don't like the explanation that Grendel is only mad because the Danes are loud neighbors, but it has some mythic resonance, as when the gods get mad at all the noise humanity it making in Gilgamesh and the Popol Vuh. Let's accept that change, though -- Grendel does a LOT of screaming for someone with hyper-sensitive hearing. He was giving me a headache, and my hearing is in the normal human range. If I had his hearing, I wouldn't go into the noisy area and start shrieking. Then, when his eardrum is punctured, he shrinks -- first down to normal human size, then eventually to fetal size (though, interestingly, when his arm is hanging on the wall later, it is huge, even though he lost it after he shrunk). So ... his size is in his ear? Huh?

Also, when Hrothgar commits suicide, I didn't buy it. Why then? He certainly had the motivation to kill himself earlier, but now that the curse had been lifted from him, and he knew it had passed on to Beowulf, he was relieved of his shame. It struck me as just a plot device to get him out of the picture, not a natural development of his character.

The thing that worked best in the movie is Beowulf's self-mutilation to kill the dragon. It combined the cyclicality of the plot with the association of Beowulf himself with a kind of monstrousness. I've been annoyed by recent Beowulf adaptations that don't allow Beowulf to kill Grendel by cutting off his arm -- such as Beowulf & Grendel, in which Grendel's mortal wound is an act of self-mutilation, and Grendel, in which Grendel is blown up by explosive crossbow bolts. Here, not only does Beowulf remove Grendel's arm, but he takes his own as well. A nice touch, and one that moved the film from "bad, not terrible, but bad" into "mediocre" for me.

Other tiny points:
  • If the dragon is attacking the bridge you are standing on, get off it.
  • How could a heart that size pump blood through the huge dragon body?
  • The Christian/pagan thing never quite got worked out well. I was under the impression that the film was trying to be anti-Christian, but it never really came to thematic fruition.
  • So, Cain was the slave who stole the cup, and a symbol of those abused by Christians. So the dragon attacked because, what, Christians are evil, and Cain is good?
  • Beowulf's son was the Silver Surfer, just gold-colored?
  • The shot of the dragons on the kings crown was a nice transition in time.
  • Heorot Hall really needed guard rails.
  • People spent a lot of time pointlessly nude or in briefs for a film set in a northern climate. No wonder they didn't do live action -- the actors would have died of pnuemonia.
  • There's a LOT of Freud here. A lot. If you don't like Oedipal / Electra themes, this isn't the movie for you.

So, the upshot -- I'm still waiting for the Great Beowulf Film.

29 comments:

  1. Good review, Doc. Thanks for mentioning how odd Wealtheow's face looked. I had hoped age would have softened her features, but I was wrong.

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  2. Aye -- wasn't the best movie, but it wasn't the worst movie I've ever seen, by far. (That would be The Ninth Gate -- utter garbage. I would gladly watch Beowulf a dozen times before ever watching that thing again.)

    I feel your pain, though -- every time I hear about one of my beloved SF stories being possibly turned into a movie, I cringe. They hardly ever turn out good.

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  3. Thanks for a great review and one a little less idiosyncratic than mine. I was kind of half expecting yours to go up first and thought I should do something I figured you wouldn't -- but at least I wasn't one the people e-mailing to ask where your review was! :)

    Clearly you thought the "unreliability of story telling theme" was more coherent than I did. I wasn't quite sure what it was trying to do, but I could tell they were going for *something*. That idea, however undeveloped, as well as the good points you mention (for instance, Beowulf's nicely referential self-sacrifice) are what I saw in it as having potential. It's just too bad that the writers didn't work out inconsistencies and that they didn't work with a director who a) liked the original poem and b) had a vision for it that wasn't all "look what we can do with effects!" And you're spot on regarding the effects controlling the movie, imho.

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  4. PS -- I wonder, did you, like me, think even for a moment that the Mermaid was G's Mom? That may have been what distracted me from the story-telling theme, because I was thinking, "Wait, what are they trying to do here?"

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  5. Hey, cappy -- at least The Ninth Gate had a real (i.e. not CGI) Johnny Depp, so that puts it head and shoulders above many a bad film (despite his throwing a sixteenth century volume on a photocopier -- argh!). You clearly haven't seen enough bad films. I challenge you to see through Evil Alien Conquerors, Bloodsucking Redneck Vampires or KPAX. After that 9G will seem like Oscar material.

    By the by -- Gene, too, was obsessed with the heart's inability to maintain a body that size, hypothesizing that it was perhaps only the fire heart, not the whole body heart...

    Uh, yeah.

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  6. My thought was that Hrothgar offed himself because of the Grendelmum glamour that made Beowulf king two seconds after she promised him he'd be king. He was going a bit crazy there for a second, and I sort of saw that as a product of change that all of a sudden made Wiglaf not question Beowulf's decisions anymore (as he did quietly a bit in the beginning), and made Unferth less of a douchy jerkface. Just my two cents!

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  7. I think Hrothgar offed himself to get the hell out of a crap film, or at least in the hopes that the afterlife might furnish warmer clothes (a cardigan, a cardigan, my kingdom for a cardigan!)

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  8. Very fine review. I've been trying to decide if I can risk going. I...might not.

    Thing is, the poem itself deals with the storytelling aspect of the culture. It was acceptable to boast, even embellish, one's deeds. It sounds like someone is imposing a more modern perspective on self-promotion, perhaps?

    Also, excuse me, but did someone say "Beowulf's SON"?? The whole problem at the end of the poem is that Beowulf gets old without leaving a strong heir behind, thus the implied end of the Geats when he's gone. Whence this SON?

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  9. Shell,

    The dragon is his son, just as Grendel is Hrothgar's. So, I suppose technically he can't be an heir (though he is strong) and, as Beowulf kills him, he doesn't leave him behind.

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  10. cappy9:04 PM

    @k. a.

    Oh, Depp wasn't CG'ed in that movie? Cause I don't seem to remember him acting in it one bit at all. :P

    And I've seen League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, which I contend to be one of the worst movies of all time, hands down, bar none, etc. The fact that its budget was as big as it was helps give it that title to me.

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  11. Two responses to things you raise there, for what they may be worth. I too wondered about the dragon-heart and figured that they must be figuring it had two (or more, I suppose). Blood to the brain up the long neck... But generally I thought the dragon physiology was more of a plot device than a worked-out thing--you know, break glass here in case of fire and so on.

    However, you also say:

    "So, Cain was the slave who stole the cup, and a symbol of those abused by Christians. So the dragon attacked because, what, Christians are evil, and Cain is good?"

    I did wonder what the significance of the Cain thing was, and that the apparently anti-Christian thing was done very ambiguously. Burning crosses keep falling over--but the dragon does stop at Unferth's cross. Beowulf says the Christian God has killed the heroes; but Unferth was recommending it all along, and it seems in fact to have protected him. Could "objectionable but right" be the final verdict on Christianity?

    And finally my take on Cain (another symbolism they never used, but appropriate for the slave of someone nicknamed Kinslayer, no?) and the dragon-cup was that he'd been allowed to find it, because now Beowulf's son was of age, Grendel's mother was ending the agreement. I never thought that it might have been stolen, because how would Cain have got there unless Grendel's mother wanted him to?

    FWIW I think it does say something for the film that though lots is unexplained and badly set out there are possible answers to some such issues buried in it by apparent intent.

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  12. Huh. The dragon is his...son. I really have no response to that.

    Does the dragon fly around announcing himself as "Dragon, sunu Beowulf" every time he meets someone?

    If you have time to answer, I'm curious: Do you agree that the Geats are completely screwed at the end of the poem? Is that implication in the film as well?

    Great blog, by the way--and FANTASTIC title. In my Ph.D. program everyone had to take a semester of Old English and then a semester of Beowulf *in* Old English. Amazingly, I still love Beowulf. (Can't do OE, though.)

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  13. Shell,

    I think the consensus is that the Geats are completely screwed in the poem. Look on a map today, and you'll see the land of the Danes ... do you see any countries called "Geatland" or "Geatmark" or "Geatsylvania?"

    As for the film, the Geats are irrelevant. Beowulf comes to Denmark, then never goes home.

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  14. I just saw the film and I'm glad to see you've brought up many of the concerns I had as well, even down to Wealtheow's face and the strangely obvious Freudian moments.

    I've avoided reading any reviews until seeing the movie so I apologize if this has already been covered (and I'm sure you're sick of the movie by now), but I do wonder what you thought about the bastardized language Grendel and his mother spoke? A strange mix of OE, ME, and modern English. It reminded me of Eco's character Salvatore from the Name of the Rose and it struck me as a nice touch, making Grendel and his mom temporary/physically displaced both in the film and in the context of early medieval society. Granted, this film wasn't a successful project, but I do think Gaiman struck a nice chord from time to time, perhaps accidentally.

    Hope things are well in Troy!

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  15. About the Geats are screwed, doomed or whatever. No there is no '"Geatland" or "Geatmark" or "Geatsylvania?"' However there is a Götaland or, as it would probably be "transcribed", Goetaland (On wikipedia even called Geatland, but who trusts wikipedia?). It is located in the southern part of Sweden, Scandinavia where the Beowulf story takes place. The latinised form is Gothia of wich Skathinawjo (from where the name Scandinavia is said to be derived) is a part. There is also a Swedish island called Gotland.

    Since you are from Bamalama I expect you to be ignorant of this geographic fact. Why wouldn't you be? I even expect neighbours like f ex Danes not to know.

    The wikiwebthingie about Götaland, it even mentions Beowulf, imagine that. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/G%C3%B6taland

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  16. Anonymous2:26 AM

    I wanst really impressed with it. I watch only the best movies but I got the chance to see it .

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  17. Anonymous4:15 AM

    That was a great movie. I want only the best movies.

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  18. Anonymous10:19 AM

    How could a heart that size pump blood through the huge dragon body? lol...lolol...all i care is it me and my fello java man... if you dont like and see even the tiniest miss of this movie.go and create your own, aliensuper ginius people...and sory for my super bad enlish.uegipojd[ewoj

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  19. I don't know how you can possibly try to write a review of this repulsive, abominable, horrendous, distorted film when you obviously have not read the translations of the original document.
    -This dreadful representation of a truly marvelous epic is painful as it is infuriating
    Shame, shame, shame.

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  20. Hey, a least the movie can learn us some things about medieval times? (important to note to the viewers that dragons weren't there :) ) - anyhow, i think this movie is more suitable for teen audience..and not for us matures :)

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  21. a really great movie and a greater post! hope to read more movies-conversation asap! just tell me before so i can see the movie you're talking about in advance :)

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  22. Anonymous10:43 AM

    this movie is awesome.

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  23. Beowulf is great hero to me, a little bit greedy, lustful and violent, however the bravery show by this men have no limits, no matter if the monster are more big than him or inclusive are more than him, the only weak spot in her defense are his lust, well and who don't be this with a gorgeous and sexy monster with the appearance of Angeline Jolie.
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  24. Anonymous11:30 AM

    Beowulf is great hero to me, a little bit @VIAGRA ONLINE: "greedy, lustful and violent, however the bravery show by this men have no limits, no matter if the monster are more big than him or inclusive are more than him, the only weak spot in her defense are his lust, well and who don't be this with a gorgeous and sexy monster with the appearance of Angeline Jolie."

    wow. that really says all there is to say about zemekises movie. And how he has used his oh so richly deserved hollywood platform, to "improve" on the Beowulf poets material, probably forever. Congragulations Beowulf

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