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 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.
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.