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Beowulf The Movie


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I'm ready for some 3-D



Confronting the Fabled Monster, Not to Mention His Naked Mom


Published: November 16, 2007

You don’t need to wait for Angelina Jolie to rise from the vaporous depths naked and dripping liquid gold to know that this “Beowulf†isn’t your high school teacher’s Old English epic poem. You don’t even have to wait for the flying spears and airborne bodies that — if you watch the movie in one of the hundreds of theaters equipped with 3-D projection — will look as if they’re hurtling directly at your head. You could poke your eye out with one of those things! Which is precisely what I thought when I first saw Ms. Jolie’s jutting breasts too.

Ms. Jolie plays the bad girl in “Beowulf,†a wicked demon, the mother of all monsters — here, Grendel, played by Crispin Glover — who can switch from hag to fab in the wink of a serpentine eye. If you don’t remember this evil babe from the poem, it’s because she’s almost entirely the invention of the screenwriters Roger Avary and Neil Gaiman and the director Robert Zemeckis, who together have plumped her up in words, deeds and curves. These creative interventions aren’t especially surprising given the source material and the nature of big-studio adaptations. There’s plenty of action in “Beowulf,†but even its more vigorous bloodletting pales next to its rich language, exotic setting and mythic grandeur.

At the heart of this take on the epic are the bookended battles fought by the Geat warrior Beowulf (Ray Winstone), the first against Grendel (and his mother), the second against a dragon. Beowulf visits the Danish kingdom, where he eyeballs the queen (Robin Wright Penn) and promises to fight Grendel for the king (Anthony Hopkins). In between intimations of court intrigue, the rest of the characters do what they almost always do in movies set in Ancient Times, namely grunt, shout and eat with their mouths open. Eventually Grendel crashes the party, and Beowulf leads the charge, bouncing off beast and walls completely naked, his genitals hidden by convenient obstructions. Somehow this trick was a lot funnier in “Borat†and “The Simpsons Movie.â€

For the poet Seamus Heaney, whose gorgeous translation of the poem became an unexpected best seller after it was published in 1999, Grendel “comes alive in the reader’s imagination as a kind of dog-breath in the dark.†The reader’s imagination, of course, has long been one of the banes of cinema. Any filmmaker who takes a stab at literary adaptation has to compete with those moving pictures already flickering in our heads, the ones we create when we read a book. The solution for many filmmakers is to try to top the reader’s imagination or distract it or overwhelm it, usually by throwing everything they can think of at the screen, including lots of big: big noise, sets, moves, effects, stars and, yup, even big breasts.

Mr. Zemeckis throws a lot of stuff at us in “Beowulf†besides Ms. Jolie, including spears, swords, pools of gore, dribbles of mucous and images with extremely forced perspectives, which direct your vision toward the center of the frame, goosing the 3-D effect. Mostly he throws technology at us. The main characters in the movie were created through performance capture, a system that allows filmmakers to map an actor’s expressions and gestures onto a computer-generated model, which is then further tweaked. (Eye movements are captured separately.) Neither wholly animation nor live action, it is a sophisticated visual technique, and true believers see it as the future of movies, though really the most interesting thing about it is that it’s not intrinsically interesting.

To be honest, I don’t yet see the point of performance capture, particularly given how ugly it renders realistic-looking human forms. Although the human faces and especially the eyes in “Beowulf†look somewhat less creepy than they did in “The Polar Express,†Mr. Zemeckis’s first experiment with performance capture, they still have neither the spark of true life nor that of an artist’s unfettered imagination. The face of Mr. Hopkins’s king resembles the actor’s in broad outline, in the shape and curve of his physiognomy. But it has none of the minute trembling and shuddering that define and enliven — actually animate — the discrete spaces separating the nose, eyes and mouth. You see the cladding but not the soul.

The character designs for the nonhuman forms work far better. Grendel isn’t remotely scary, but he looks pleasingly disgusting, like a stringy, chewed-up cadaver with snake scales and a suggestion of Mr. Glover’s own beak. Grendel soars through the air pretty much the way Mr. Zemeckis’s busy camera does: Both are full of zip. They’re certainly fun to watch as they Ping-Pong across the frame, though neither goes anywhere meaningful. By contrast, the human characters move with a perceptible drag effect, as if underwater, with none of the kinetic vibrancy of real bodily locomotion. That makes the 3-D effects all the more important, because the only time the movie pops is when something or someone seems to be flying at you.

Yet the 3-D is necessary to the film only in so far as it keeps your eyes engaged when your mind starts to wander. Stripped of much of the original poem’s language, its cadences, deep history and context, this film version of “Beowulf†doesn’t offer much beyond 3-D oohs and ahs, sword clanging and a nicely conceived dragon, which probably explains why Mr. Zemeckis and his collaborators have tried to sex it up with Ms. Jolie, among other comic-book flourishes. The same no doubt accounts for why Mr. Winstone, an actor of substantial stomach girth who is every inch a sexy beast in his own right, has been transformed into a generic-looking gym rat complete with six-pack. Somewhere in B-movie heaven Steve Reeves is smiling.

“Beowulf†is rated PG-13 (Parents strongly cautioned). Gory violence and a naked Angelina Jolie avatar.


Nationwide in flat screen and 3-D. .

Directed by Robert Zemeckis; written by Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary, based on the epic poem; director of photography, Robert Presley; edited by Jeremiah O’Driscoll; music by Alan Silvestri, with songs by Mr. Silvestri and Glen Ballard; production designer, Doug Chiang; senior visual effects supervisor, Jerome Chen; produced by Mr. Zemeckis, Steve Starkey and Jack Rapke; released by Paramount Pictures. Running time: 114 minutes.

WITH: Ray Winstone (Beowulf), Anthony Hopkins (Hrothgar), John Malkovich (Unferth), Robin Wright Penn (Wealthow), Brendan Gleeson (Wiglaf), Crispin Glover (Grendel), Alison Lohman (Ursula) and Angelina Jolie (Grendel’s mother).

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