I was compelled to give "Beowulf" the benefit of the doubt. After all, the film's pedigree all but demanded it.
First: scriptwriters Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary. Gaiman is the acclaimed British fantasy and comics writer whose novel Stardust was released adapted into a fantastic film. (Check out my review of that film which explores Gaiman's work more in depth.) Avary won an Oscar for co-writing "Pulp Fiction" with Quentin Tarantino. He's also the director of the cult hits "Killing Zoe" and "The Rules of Attraction." Apparently the two first met when Avary was preparing an adaptation of Gaiman's "The Sandman." That project was eventually shelved but the two became friends and ended up writing the "Beowulf" script together. The film is worth anticipating purely on the basis of these two award-winning writers.
Second: a director with a pretty solid record of producing quality -- albeit pretty safe and mainstream -- work. Oscar-winner Robert Zemeckis directed the "Back to the Future" trilogy, "Who Framed Roger Rabbit," "Death Becomes Her," "Forrest Gump," "Contact," "What Lies Beneath," "Cast Away," and "The Polar Express" - certainly more hits than misses.
Third: an exciting group of actors. Portraying Beowulf is British actor Ray Winstone, most recently seen in last year's "The Departed" as one of Jack Nicholson's thugs. (Check out 2000's "Sexy Beast" to really him in action.) Anthony Hopkins is King Hrothgar and Robin Wright Penn is his queen Wealtheow. John Malkovich is Unferth, an adviser to the King. The eccentric Crispin Glover brings to life the monstrous Grendel. And stealing the entire movie - as is to be expected - is Angelina Jolie as Grendel's sensual, demonic mother.
Fourth: the tale is one that has certainly stood the test of time. The film is inspired by a classic epic poem known to many as one of the horrors of high school and college English classes. Circa 500 AD King Hrothgar and his people - the Danes - are celebrating the construction of their new Mead hall. There is much "merrymaking" - drinking, singing, feasting, and, of course, fornicating. Their party is interrupted, though, by an attack from the horrific creature Grendel. The disgusting monster bursts through the door and starts picking up men and throwing them across the hall, ripping them in half, and biting their heads off. The next day the mead hall is sealed and the dead are buried. The call then goes out that King Hrothgar will give up half of his gold to anyone who can defeat Grendel. Taking up the call is the boastful geat Beowulf who arrives with his men and that night lures the creature back to the mead hall. Beowful is victorious in his battle with the monster but his trials are just beginning when he confronts the creature's much more dangerous mother.
Fifth and finally: the film was shot using a computer animation motion-capture technique. Zemeckis had previously used this technology when making his previous film, "The Polar Express." It involves the actors actually moving around in suits with electronic components that capture their actions. This data is then used to create a unique computer-animation. Pushing the visuals even further is a 3-D component. "Beowulf" was released in standard 35 millimeter, digital 3-D, and IMAX 3-D also.
The film had a whole lot going for it. By all accounts it should be an excellent picture. So when I fell asleep midway through the film my first instinct was to blame myself, not the picture. "Oh it's not boring. I was just tired. My fault. Should have paid $4 at the concession stand for a diet coke." So, in no position to review the film, it only made sense to catch it again and, this time, go for the digital 3-D presentation. Surely this time the film would keep me awake. Unfortunately, it did.
Which is the weak leg of the chair that makes the whole thing collapse? Of the aforementioned five contributors of what should guarantee an excellent picture the problem lies with number four - the source material. Question: doesn't it seem rather odd that this is the first major, big budget ($150 million) Hollywood production of Beowulf? One would think that as one of the great stories, one of the foundations of western literature, that it would have already been made into numerous films. Sure, there have been films inspired by Beowulf that have incorporated elements of the story or that have twisted it in usual ways. There's a 1999 sci-fi "Beowulf" that takes the story and puts it in a post-apocalyptic setting. There's "The 13th Warrior," which is based off of Michael Crichton's Eaters of the Dead, a novel based off of the epic poem. However, the closest one gets to Beowulf is a 2005 film shot in Iceland called "Beowulf and Grendel" which apparently adds even more plot twists and developments than Zemeckis's film.
It's not that the epic poem is "un-filmable" so much as that aside from the action scenes there's not much there. The action sequences are certainly entertaining to watch, especially in 3-D. And Grendel and his mother are exciting to watch. (In different fashions it goes without saying.) But the film comes to a standstill when the human characters do anything aside from fighting. None of these characters are remotely interesting. Despite being in 3-D they are pretty one dimensional. I cannot empathize or sympathize with any of them. Where is our point of entry into the film? With whom do we align ourselves? Who do we live through? Beowulf is an arrogant He-Man. Hrothgar is a drunken dope. The only characters that come to life and draw any emotion other than boredom are the monsters!
And a word about the 3-D: unnecessary. Another word: gimmick. It's a nice, fun thing to watch for a little bit but after awhile you adjust to it and it loses its mystique. It certainly does not really effect the narrative or the cinematic experience all that much. In fact they cannot really make it essential to the plot since most theatres can only do the standard projection. Ultimately it's certainly not worth $3 on top of the ticket price. It's not like one of those 3-D shows at theme parks where the theatres and equipped with all kinds of weird effects in addition to the 3-D.
So it appears as though "300" will reign supreme as 2007's classical, ancient battle movie that utilizes awesome special effects. Those considering seeing "Beowulf" should save their time and money and just watch "300" again.
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