LOTS OF SPOILERS AHEAD!
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.
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.
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.