Beowulf

2007, US, Directed by Robert Zemeckis

Colour, Running Time: 113 minutes

Review Source: Cinema Screening; Image: 2.20:1 Digital 3D

Just had a pretty cool experience at the cinema. No, the usherette didn’t invite me to the back room for a bit of sword and sorcery role play (they’re not that attractive where I come from) - it was in fact a digital 3D projection of Beowulf, the new ‘animated’ film from Robert Zemeckis, ImageMovers and Warner Bros. (the latter taking primary care of distribution). Adopting the mythical Beowulf story/poem as a template modern technicians and artists have attempted to recreate the Viking world of Scandinavia (Denmark specifically), giving it unprecedented visual detail and texture and bringing the viewer right into it by utilising recent three dimensional projection techniques. Story is a fairly simple one: a small establishment of townspeople and their king are threatened periodically by a truly monstrous creature they call Grendel, something that emerges from nearby caves whenever he/it is disturbed by the louder sounds emanating from the king’s domain. He destroys anything in his path and appears to be unstoppable so the king calls upon a warrior hero who can rid the town of its curse. Enter Beowulf, a mighty Viking who is adept at combat as well as in possession of near superhuman strength and athletic ability. He soon kills Grendel but also finds that the creature’s mother dwells in the caves also. In exchange for untold riches and power Beowulf gives in to temptation and mates with the seductive but demonic woman. Thereafter Beowulf takes the throne when the old king dies but years later it seems the curse has returned when an overwhelmingly destructive dragon emerges from the very same caves from which Grendel first set foot.

The man himself

The story itself is relatively straightforward material, at least on the surface. In Dungeons & Dragons and Lord of the Rings mould it’s a fantasy adventure where warriors make combat with inhuman monsters. What I believe may be beneath the surface is a socio-political subtext on the responsibilities of fatherhood along with the dangers of yielding to temptation. In these respects it’s quite a significant piece given the wayward nature of today’s youth when it comes to impregnating one another before departing to leave others to pick up the tabs. In fact, in this light it’s poignant and possibly controversial - leave a bastard child born purely out of lust and you risk creating a monster. Where the film can fall a little is in the characterisations, which are lacking leaving onscreen people who are mostly incapable of eliciting sympathy (though this seems to be rectified to an extent by the film‘s final third), and also the ‘acting’ seems a little wooden, if the term can be applied here. I don’t think Ray Winstone (as Beowulf) is the best choice to portray an animated character but I suppose his tough guy image seems to fit the character’s omnipotent nature, being as he is the stereotype ideal male. The hero is flawed, both morally and in his ability to stand up to temptation - it’s initially easy to dislike him, but by the film’s conclusion I think perception of this fallible man is suitably turned around. It was of some concern when Beowulf goes to visit the mother of Grendel, a supreme sexual beauty who no male can deny, and rising from the water with her rubber dinghy lips is… Angelina Jolie??? Perhaps the casting department should have consulted some real people for their opinions instead of FHM before bringing in one of the supposed sexiest women in the world. Saying that, her 3D doppelganger is not something one would say no to (after half a pint of shandy), so I suppose the point was made. Many of the characters resemble the actors who are voicing them so it’s often a little uncanny to watch these virtually photo-realistic renditions of people we’ve seen before (John Malkovich is lovely to watch and listen to as his character Unferth). Obviously motion captured for the most part this kind of work I’m not really in favour of and I think more interesting results could have been obtained with proper animation. It’s much more time consuming, as I can personally testify, but if an unreal world is going to be painstakingly created with 3D graphics it always seems like an odd choice to implement ‘real’ movements instead of embellishing what’s been created with artist-propelled movements. Hints at Viking mythology are welcome though generally in the background; for example I was particularly pleased to see one of the characters receive a traditional Viking funeral by having his body set to sail in a burning ship.

Don't get on the wrong side of something that has methane for breath

Technically the film is supreme without much doubt: the modelling on display is exemplary of what’s capable in 3D graphics, lighting should attract an Oscar nomination, texturing is simply astounding with detail levels amazingly sharp; minute hairs on faces are visible in closer shots and millions of them too - this must have been a rendering nightmare! The 3D effect itself is of course obtained using glasses, as in the old days and with current IMAX presentations. In fact, this film was designed with IMAX cinemas in mind and 70mm versions have been struck for such screenings. I saw it at CineWorld but even here the effect was excellent and very often an immersing experience. Close-ups look slightly artificial but group shots and landscape work is quite incredible. The dragon battle is one of the most awe-inspiring audio-visual sequences I think a person can absorb. Many camera movements take full advantage of this, swooping you through the world. It’s important not to confuse all this marvellous technical work with great film-making but I think the movie just about holds up as something worth checking out in its own right - the real test will materialise when it ends up on good old 2D DVD. As it is at the cinema, for the spectacle of the 3D effect alone (especially the jaw-dropping dragon battle) this film is worth paying a few quid to witness.

6 Responses to “Beowulf”

  1. Cal Says:

    I’ve heard some good and bad things about this, but I might check it out if the mood catches me.

    Incidentally, does the old Marillion track get an airing? :p

  2. paulwjm Says:

    As always it’s best to go make your own mind up, but regardless of whether you actually think the film itself is great or not, it’s worth checking out at the cinema purely for the 3D spectacle. Of course we’ve all seen a 3D film but things have improved a bit since Jaws 3 and the level of detail in the world is amazing. Plus, one thing I didn’t mention above, it’s a little gruesome in places (though only classified as a 12) so it seems like they weren’t specifically aiming it at children.

    You mean ‘Grendel’ I take it :) No, unfortunately not…

  3. Mike Says:

    Sadly, I saw this in a 2D theatre, made worse by an awful cinema that seemed to be full of kids who think talking and laughing during movies enhances the entertainment :(

    Apart from all that, I really enjoyed it, and thought the performance of Grendel (Back to the Future’s Crispin Glover, isn’t it?) was an amazing piece of vocal casting. It looks fantastic, and I got the impression it never took itself too seriously e.g. the swords, elbows, etc that shielded the audience from Beowulf’s ‘Vking jewels’ during the naked combat scene. It’s far in advance of The Polar Express, Zemeckis’s last experiment with animation, though the dead-eyed problem remains, and might never realistically be solved.

    Favourite part - probably the long, long pull back from Hrothgar’s Hall of Mead, across a snowy landscape and through trees until we reach the demon’s cave. Zemeckis did this before in Contact, and just like then it’s a wonderfully effective piece of film.

  4. paulwjm Says:

    Brilliant point about that amazing camera-pullback! The similarity didn’t click with me until your comment - it is indeed extremely reminiscent of the opening Contact shot and very similar with regards to use of sound (i.e. the gradually increasing silence as the camera gets further away); I love the effect.

    The problem with human movement in animation (particularly eyes) is the fact that we’re so acutely aware of its intricacies, despite general lack of conscious acknowledgement of this, that the most minimal discrepancy between real and artificially created motion produces the effect you mention. I wouldn’t like to say that it will never be conquered but it does seem to the last great hurdle to achieving true photo-realism.

    Real shame about your naff cinema experience though - if you get the chance I’d definitely check it out in 3D (and with a sensible audience if that’s at all possible - luckily mine was alright).

    Thanks for your input, Mike.

  5. gproject Says:

    You know, I came out of this in a similar frame of mind to how you open the review: I’d had a good experience. It’s the first time in a while that I’ve wanted to come out and tell people about how good an experience I’d had, rather than just say: “yes, the film was good”.

    It’s very easy to be snotty about the idea that digital projection and 3D technology are going to be the defining features that put audiences back into theatres, but I have to admit that I was impressed and left the theatre smiling despite Beowulf only being a ho-hum of a movie.

    I’m still in two minds about the whole thing, I guess. A feature on Film 2007 a few weeks ago had industry professionals raving about the idea that 3D could redefine cinema - but is there short-sightedness about the sustainability of 3D (it’s good now, but what about 5 years time?), plus they’ve got a financial angle for convincing us it is working (tiered pricing for 3D and non-3D movies, difficult to pirate etc.).

  6. paulwjm Says:

    You’re right being sceptical about the long-term possibilities for 3D - it has tended to be a short-lived gimmick in the past, however the process has improved plus I hear there are quite a few directors choosing to shoot using the method as standard now. If it does become more widespread then it’s a good idea to allow punters to pay less if they already have the specs - they’re pretty rigid specs (as opposed to the old cardboard frames) and it doesn’t make sense to keep paying for them every time you see one of these films and thus having to dispose of them, plus it’s not environmentally friendly.
    The real test for Beowulf, whether it’s truly a worthwhile movie in its own right and all that, is when we see it in 2D. It’s easy to get sidelined by the fact that it’s in 3D, however, I do feel tempted to pick it up at the moment. I’ve heard that the new HD formats will be capable of replicating the 3D effect so that’s an interesting proposition in light of the new process.

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