With Beowulf, the latest motion-capture film from director Robert Zemeckis, one of mankind's oldest tales is hurled up onto the movie screen using the cutting edge of new technology. As in The Polar Express, Zemeckis's first foray into motion-capture animated moviemaking, the actors are first shot on a soundstage, wearing motion-indicating elements that allow computers to turn their movements and facial expressions into sets of data; then, that data is animated by computers and artists, so that real motion and facial expressions can be re-cast in fantastic settings and melded with wild imaginings. As if that weren't enough, the resulting movie in this case has also been enhanced so the theatrical experience is 3-D; swords, dragons and flame leap from the screen, hovering right before your very eyes. It all sounds wonderful.
But, as so often happens in life, the execution falls somewhat short of the expectation. I know it seems like a betrayal of the critic's job -- to look deeper, to see beyond the obvious -- to begin with complaints about the animation in the film, but it would be even more of a betrayal of the critic's job to not point out the most obvious and glaring fact about Zemeckis's technique. Namely, that it looks horrible. A scientist working in the burgeoning field of the human perception of virtual simulacra would talk Beowulf's animation in the context of the "uncanny valley," the phenomena where, when confronted with a robot or virtual avatar that has a high degree of match to human movement and appearance, the human mind flip-flops and instead obsesses about the smaller elements of mis-match, jarred by the mistakes in the image instead of thrilled by the accuracies. (Confronted with a 98% accurate simulacra, for example, most people instead fixate on the 2% difference.) But I'm not a scientist working in the burgeoning field of the human perception of virtual simulacra; as a layman, I can only offer that in Beowulf (as in The Polar Express), Zemeckis seems to have created a world peopled by drowning victims brought back to life after a three-week soak: Pale, puffy, slow-moving revenants with no light in their eyes.
Zemeckis has always put himself on the cutting edge of using new technologies to tell stories; without his directorial aspirations and skills, we wouldn't have, say, the wonderful Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, to give but one example. But somewhere along the line, his hunger to use new technologies to tell stories became more important than telling the stories, and it became more important to push the envelope than to care about what was written on the document inside. (It's hard to place this tipping point in his career exactly, but the fact that Zemeckis digitally tweaked Jodie Foster's eyebrow for a scene in Contact -- to make the "perfect" shot out of two separate takes -- may have marked the beginning of Zemeckis's moving away from stories and actors and towards gimmicks and tricks.) This becomes even more obvious watching the 3-D version of the film, with gold coins and lance tips and spurts of blood flying off the screen at you. The 3-D is briefly diverting, but then becomes a gimmick fairly fast; worse, the 3-D glasses mean you can't tilt your head more than a few angles off the vertical axis, or the movie turns into a ghostly, headache-inducing blur. I've had other filmmakers make me keep my eyes riveted on the screen while I was completely motionless, but that was due to the promise of excitement if I did, not the threat of punishment if I didn't.
The plot of Beowulf is simplicity, though -- which explains why Zemeckis may have felt the bells and whistles were necessary in the first place. In 507 A.D. Denmark, the lands under the rule of King Hrothgar (voiced by Anthony Hopkins) are beset by the fearsome monster Grendel. After one of the grim, gruesome and grisly Grendel's occasional rampages, a group of nomadic Geats land, led by the warrior-hero Beowulf (Ray Winstone). Promised riches and glory if he should succeed -- and liking the look of Hrothgar's queen, Wealthow (Robin Wright Penn) -- Beowulf decides to take a shot at killing the beast. He does (and this should not be considered a 'spoiler' any more than the title of The Last of the Mohicans), but when he goes to confront Grendel's mother, he finds a shapeshifting seductress (voiced by Angelina Jolie) who promises him glory in exchange for complicity. ... And this, too, speaks to another problem with Beowulf: The lead character's a jerk, with lousy taste in bedmates. For the first half of the film, Beowulf's a self-centered boor; then we flash-forward several decades, and he's a self-pitying bore.
Roger Avary and Neil Gaiman's script adaptation of the saga also has a weird idea of fidelity; in the poem, Beowulf fights Grendel in the nude, so they keep that. But you also get Hrothgar's adviser Unfurth (John Malkovich) speaking very modern phrases, as when he challenges Beowulf's tales of past glories: " ... Can I ask you a question -- as I am a huge admirer of yours. ..." We get the vulgar, vibrant language of the past, yes: "I am the teeth in the darkness! My name is strength! And lust! And power! I am Beowulf!" But we also get fellatio jokes and out-of-nowhere Scots accents for Danish characters. There's a weird sub-theme about the arrival of Christianity among the Danes that goes nowhere; Beowulf notes late in the film that "The Christ-God" has ended the age of heroes, "leaving us nothing but weeping martyrs, fear and shame." The line gave me a brief flashback to Catholic grade school, but it doesn't really connect to much else in the story. And there's a mild thread of political commentary: Both Hrothgar and Beowulf stand in the ancient equivalent of a flight suit in front the ancient equivalent of a "Mission Accomplished" banner -- which is to say, Grendel's severed arm -- and lie about their role in ending a threat that's far from over. But, again, that goes nowhere -- or, rather, the room to explore it is taken up with empty spectacle and action that looks like between-the-levels cutscenes from a five-year-old videogame.
And the spectacle isn't even that spectacular. While Beowulf fights nude, his manhood's shielded by a series of conveniently-placed rectangular objects that would make Austin Powers blush. But we do get the reverse view: As one disgruntled attendee put it leaving the IMAX 3-D screening I attended, "Liberal Hollywood: They'll show you plenty of man-ass, but not Angelina Jolie's titties." Never mind the philosophical question around how this young man was actually denied a virtual representation of the glands in question; he actually hits the sweet spot of the (conservative) MPAA's hypocrisy about sex and violence. Watching Beowulf, a 14-year old would see virtual representations of people rent in twain, impaled on spears, bitten in half ... but this same hypothetical 14-year old would, it seems, be traumatized by so much as one computer-simulated nipple. And since 14-year-old boys are going to be the lifeblood of Beowulf's box office -- such high testosterone, such low standards, all in one package -- avoiding an 'R' means cutting any and all nipple-related activity. This is the censor's psychosis, as embodied by the MPAA: Sensuality and the human form whole and unclothed? Unacceptable. Violence and the human form cut, bit and drenched in blood? Bring it on, in 3-D! And I don't know why they bothered; any sexuality Jolie may or may not have is so smothered and covered in 3-D motion-capture it becomes irrelevant.
The conflict in the story of Beowulf is man against monster, and man against himself; the conflict in this move version is more complicated -- story against technology, with the audience as the loser. The motion-capture technique and 3-D gimmicks distract you from caring about the plot and characters; the plot and characters are so thin they don't distract you from the eerie weirdness of the high-tech animation. Some are calling Beowulf the future of movies, but it would be a lot easier to swallow that hype if there were anything in the movie that suggested the people who made Beowulf were invested in making something good instead of just interested in making something new.
For more on Beowulf, see Scott's review of the film.