OH MY GOD, THE FACES.
Or, I think this is as good a time as any to ask a question that clearly hasn't been asked recently: just because we have all of these wonderful toys in modern filmmaking, that doesn't mean we have to use all of them. Take for instance motion capture CGI. Is it a clever and advanced tool? Yes! Does it make any sense that Robert Zemeckis has used it for his new adaptation of Beowulf? Not even slightly!
If you squint really hard, you can just about see why he and his team would have used this technology for their last project, 2004's The Polar Express. Kids like cartoons, it looks like a storybook, all that. But I cannot to save my very soul imagine why you would need to do mo-cap on this story, given how emphatically Peter Jackson and his Lord of the Rings have demonstrated that you can combine live-action with CGI in a perfectly convincing hybrid in the service of storytelling. Except for giving the notoriously pudgy Ray Winstone abs that you could slice paper on, there is nothing done in this film that required full-on animation, to say nothing of its well-publicised 3-D element, and that leaves, to my mind, one and only one conclusion: they were showing off, pure and simple.
Showing off can be fun, of course, but the key is that you're supposed to show off how great you are, and this is just not great. Oh, it's got a big ol' epic scope all right, with lots of vistas and gorgeous design and some great huge setpieces including one hell of a fight with a dragon (I mean that; it's a legitimately great battle scene, perfectly staged and edited). But it also has absolutely horrifying characters, and not just the ones that are supposed to be: time and again, we've seen that mo-cap isn't really up for the rigours of facial expression, but the characters in Beowulf, looking as they do exactly like CG versions of some very familiar actors, represent a new depth in the Uncanny Valley. Anthony Hopkins and Robin Wright Penn are particularly unpleasant to look at, almost photo-realistic in still frames but when they move, their flesh is revealed to be plasticine and eerily smooth, like watching Barbie dolls come alive without human souls.
Once again, I must ask futilely: why bother? What part of this story demanded the animated treatment? Even the green-screen treatment of 300 would have made sense, and given us characters who weren't unbearably terrifying to look upon.
The same thing is ultimately true of the ballyhooed 3-D, although at least that is well-done technically. It sure does look realistically deep, even more than in Meet the Robinsons earlier this year, but it lacks even the thin justification present in that film for existing. There, the design was a large part of the film's draw, and sucking the viewer into the world was just about the only positive aspect of the film. But Beowulf, though well-designed, doesn't have the same exotic look that is served by that sort of immersion. As far as I can see, the 3-D is present just to prove it can be done, and not because it increases our engagement with the film by one iota. I will say this: besides a few altogether lamentable moments in the early going, the film remains surprisingly free of the traditional bane of 3-D, waggling crap in front of the camera just for the hell of it.
A pity: the screenplay needs all the help it can get. Which is somehow surprising, although it shouldn't be. Co-writers Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary both have reputations for being very good, although in neither case is it strictly earned. Avary, of course, has long been coasting on his co-writing credit for Pulp Fiction, one of the strongest screenplays of the 1990s, but nothing he has put his name to in the last 13 years comes within spitting distance of that project - Silent Hill, anyone? And Gaiman, whose work in comics has been revolutionary and whose fantasy prose is more than fine for its genre, has only a shaky film canon, consisting largely of the curiously flat BBC version of his novel Neverwhere and the "pay attention to the visuals, not the story" boilerplate of Dave McKean's MirrorMask.
In the present script, the oldest work of English literature has been given a structural facelift that is, in all honestly, somewhat welcome. Love it or hate it,* it's hard to deny that Beowulf as it stands is a distinctly episodic affair, and episodic narratives are traditionally the death of cinema. So it is to Gaiman & Avary's credit that they've bent the story into something fairly well-suited to the big screen, adding some unnecessary deadwood to make the story more palatable to a modern audience that needs psychological underpinnings for their narratives (I'll spoil the surprise: Grendel, in this version, is Hrothgar's child), although this deadwood doesn't do much to slow down the agreeably swift pace of the plot.
So much for the story. The script that it's couched in is an epic disaster of the most delightfully overblown dialogue of the year, the sort of dialogue that makes an entire theater full of theoretically excited patrons who are theoretically not cynical film bloggers burst out in near-constant laughter. Frankly, I'm almost unwilling to believe it's not a deliberate parody of the form, when reference is made to, among other things, Hrothgar's three legs or a warrior promising that a beautiful wench will hear him coming. The whole screenplay is full of loopy double entendres like that, and quickly devolves - rises? - to the level of camp.
Meanwhile, we have a chunk of usually fine actors flailing about incoherently, with special notice given to Angelina Jolie, precisely reprising her supremely vampy accent from Alexander as Grendel's mother, and John Malkovich doing something I can't even understand as the villainous Unferth, here played as what may or may not be a drag stereotype, or may just be Malkovich's level best at a Danish accent. Really, the only performance that works at all - aided by the only animation that works at all - is Crispin Glover as the extremely damaged Grendel, here rendered into a much more sympathetic character than the poem dictates (and for some reason, given only Old English to speak, which sounds really hallucinatory coming in Glover's voice).
The actors, of course, are pretty well fucked by the visual style, and so their performances are perhaps best not harped on. A layer of thick CGI lies between us and whatever niceties might have modulated their performances, after all, turning them into hideous death masks, or in Jolie's case, the stuff of soft-core pornography (rumor holds that upon viewing her nearly-nude avatar, the actress forbade Brad Pitt or their children from ever seeing the movie. I applaud this decision on a number of levels).
It's a train wreck. That's all I can really think to say about it. This is what happens when directors with lots of money and powerful computers get all hot and bothered about the latest new toys without giving any thought to how to use those toys as storytelling elements. It's not just that Beowulf is scary to look at and laughable to listen to; what really bothers me is how damn arbitrary the whole project is.