A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Beowulf

November 17, 2010

Beowulf

I’d like to relate a story regarding this movie. When this came out on DVD I was still working as a manager of a Blockbuster store. While it was still on the new release wall I had a customer who insisted that I should give him his money back because when he rented Beowulf he didn’t realize that it was an animated movie. He claimed that it was false advertising and that there was nothing on the box to indicate that this movie didn’t feature real people. I don’t recall if I acquiesced – I’m inclined to think not because I very rarely ever gave anybody their money back unless there was a legitimate mistake on the part of my staff. I can see, however, why that customer was disillusioned. In still shots the fidelity of the digital creations in this movie do look almost photorealistic. It’s only when you see them in motion that the unreality sets in.

Part of the problem, I’m sure, is that these people look TOO realistic. Our brains are programmed to see a certain kind of movement out of people, and when it’s not there even the tiniest subtleties can cause a glaring disconnect. It’s known as the “uncanny valley” in computer animation circles, and it’s one of those challenges that drives animators crazy. The entire time that you’re watching this movie your brain is screaming at you. “There is something NOT RIGHT about the way these people are moving!” But if you look at things analytically you can’t really tell why. It’s like a light flashing irritatingly in the corner of your vision that you can’t find if you look at it directly.

This is further compounded by the fact that many of the digital automatons on the screen are made to look like the people playing the characters. Hrothgar is unmistakable Anthony Hopkins. Wealthlow, for all that she seems to have been modeled with a permanent scowl on her face, is clearly Robin Wright. Unferth looks a lot like John Malkovich with a silly beard stuck to his face. And Grendel’s mother is a sort of idealized pin-up female form with Angelina Jolie’s head stuck on top of it. (I believe it is in one of the Loading Ready Run podcasts that the lads speculate about what the animators did with that computer model – probably something it’s better not to know.) Anyhow, the uncanny valley yawns wider when it’s not just random faces but those of well known actors that are so slightly wrong in their appearance. A lot of people talk about “doll’s eyes” or say that the characters seem to have a dead stare, but for me it’s something about the stiffness of the mouth that makes me wince.

The other thing that irritates me about this movie is that it lacks the strength of its convictions. I can see what they’re going for in this adaptation. It’s intended to be a primal sort of edgy epic that looks at the savage instincts beneath the civilised masks that we wear. It tries to tie the notion of heroes and demons to urges that are nowadays frowned upon. There’s carousing and wenching and drinking and belching and all of this is what brings out the demon Grendel. Grendel is portrayed as a tortured and malformed horror. (I was delighted to see that Crispin Glover, that fantastic professional weird person, played Grendel.) There’s a whole ton of gruesome bloodletting. Grendel tears a lot of people apart, impales a bunch more, and even sucks the guts out of one guy’s torso. Beowulf shows up on the scene and insists on battling Grendel without the trappings of armor or weapons. And then suddenly the movie turns inadvertently funny. The problem is that although you can have all this gore and such apparently when it comes to full frontal nudity you can’t have that – so for the duration of Beowulf’s epic primal naked battle with Grendel the movie most resembles that bit in Austin Powers where cleverly placed objects obscure his nudity. There was never any way that an experimental and high-concept film like this was going to succeed as a PG-13 action adventure, so they should have bitten the bullet and gone for a full R rating.

There are some parts of the movie I do enjoy. There are very brief moments where the animation totally works and a believable, subtle and emotional performance comes through. (Most notably in a few later scenes of Wiglaf.) I appreciate the bits that attempt to honor the source material. (Particularly Crispin Glover speaking all of his dialog in antiquated Old English – it’s hardly able to be understood, but that’s part of the magic of it.)

To summarise: this movie is a grand experiment. It is a step on the road to a different kind of movie – one created using all the craft of real actors but in the digital era those performances will be stored as motion data rather than static film images. I would not say that it is altogether successful, but it may be a necessary thing. Perhaps the new digital frontier which Robert Zemeckis is championing could not come to be without experiments like this. Will we have fully realized motion-captured digital performances that actually work and don’t feel so artificial as these? Undoubtedly. Indeed they may not even be passive movies – they are more likely to be rendered in real time. In fact – that future is not so very far away at all. I’m looking forward to seeing what it’s going to be like.

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November 17, 2010 - Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , ,

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