From the Archive: Beowulf

This is another review raided from my former online home. If nothing else, it’s a snapshot of a time when considering the relative value of a 3D viewing was still required when evaluating a film that has that option. By now, except in the rare occasions when it’s an enormous part of the intended experience, the technology is rarely brought up in reviews. I’ll also note that, following my habit of using song lyrics as the headlines to film reviews, this piece was original presented under the banner “The rain was there to wash away my tears, I wanted to be them, but instead I destroyed myself,” taken from Sunny Day Real Estate’s “Grendel.” Sadly, at the time I wasn’t aware of the Mountain Goats song “Grendel’s Mother,” now a personal favorite.


Watching the new film Beowulf must be a fairly dismal experience in any of the 2500 or so theaters that are projecting it onto the screen in conventional old 2D. The epic tale from ten centuries past is condensed into an action spectacle, shorn of poetry, and the result is often surprisingly dull. Beefy men model their beefiness while making big, manly statements in giant halls. There are swords, spikes, seductresses slicing across the screen, not to mention royal power hanging in the balance. Classic literary derivation aside, it doesn’t add up to much. Now, my perspective comes from sitting in one of those 650 theaters that hands you a pair of plastic Ray-Ban knock-offs with a little something special going on in the lenses to help push the images into a vivid 3D. That does make a difference.

Director Robert Zemeckis returns to the motion-capture computer animation that he utilized for his 2004 holiday hit The Polar Express, this time using it for something considerably more adult (although not so adult that it the MPAA ratings board would brand it with anything harsher than a PG-13 despite countless gruesome scenes). With Express, a 3D version settled into theaters a few weeks into the film’s general release. This time, that added dimension seems to be the very point.

Zemeckis has long been a director enamored with the latest technologies. Ever since he figured out how to convincingly have Bob Hoskins co-star with a notably frenetic rabbit, Zemeckis has toyed with visual effects and general filmmaking techniques. While some others who travel that route default to making the razzle-dazzle the point (James Cameron is prime offender, often scrabbling together flat, forced scenes of human interaction between his attention-getting set pieces), Zemeckis does seem to want to find ways to integrate the new tricks into his storytelling rather than settle for mere showiness. His question–from a family of Michael J. Foxes sharing pizza in Back to the Future Part II to Lieutenant Dan’s erased calves in Forrest Gump–is always, “how can this improve the film.” Forced removal of socks through a knocking procedure is secondary, perhaps not even considered at all.

While Beowulf has ample scenes of the sort of 3D tomfoolery that has been employed since the more rudimentary version was a flash-fire fad in the fifties (and how can you make this kind of film without sharp objects protruding from the screen and various forms of goo dripping towards the audience), the real marker of who Zemeckis is as a filmmaker and how he grapples with the freshest toys in the box is the swirling, restlessly imaginative shot construction. Freed from the constraints of live action, the film constantly demonstrates what can be done if the camera can go anywhere at any speed at any time. This doesn’t hide the many problems or help the major actors lending their voices achieve anything distinctive (although it’s worth noting that John Malkovich sounds more than ever as if he’s trying to reinvent the very nature of language as he speaks it, repurposing our audible communication to make meaning out of pauses and rhythms instead of the words). It does, however, usually mean that there’s something on screen worth considering, even if it’s only through an almost academic consideration of the framing choices.

The one exception is the extended battle with a gigantic dragon that effectively serves as the film’s climax. Here all of the effort put forth by Zemeckis and his crew of animators pulls together into something bold and thrilling. It’s the one time in this middling film that the visuals transform from something to consider into something to bask in.

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