This is an abridged version of a review I wrote for Christianity Today Movies. To read the rest of this review, click here.
Written anonymously around AD700, “Beowulf” is the oldest and greatest epic in the English language. Despite the fact that its storyline encompasses Viking Scandinavia, the roughly 3000-line poem is the solitary major surviving work of Anglo-Saxon heroic poetry. The story, required reading in most high school and college English literature classes, is the foundation for all our modern hero myths, from King Arthur to Conan the Barbarian.
Robert Zemeckis, the creative genius behind such films as the Back to the Future trilogy, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Forrest Gump, Contact, and Cast Away, here uses his charming but flawed The Polar Express as a technical springboard to reimagine the epic myth of Beowulf (watch two very different and very impressive trailers here and here) for a 21st century audience. The reason filmmakers return to the well of animation time and again is simple: with animation, you are restrained only by your own imagination. What makes Beowulf the best of both worlds is that it incorporates near photo-realism with animation’s visual autonomy. Zemeckis and his team have tackled the hybrid medium in a manner that is surely the vanguard of things to come. To call Beowulf a flawed, yet evolutionary leap forward in cinema may not be too great a compliment.
Like the poem, the film can be divided into roughly three acts. In the first, the monster Grendel (Crispin Glover), roused from his cave (the outside of which looks like something plucked from the mind of Caspar David Friedrich and the inside of which is vaulted with trusses that look disturbingly like a titanic human ribcage) by the merriment of the drunken lout, King Hrothgar (Anthony Hopkins) and his reveling Danes, attacks the mead hall, slaughtering and devouring his victims. Hrothgar sends out a medieval distress call to which the warrior Beowulf (Ray Winstone) and his band of men respond. After a cataclysmic confrontation with the beast, Beowulf tears Grendel’s arm from his torso, leaving the troll to limp back to his cave to die.
In the second act, Grendel’s mother (Angelina Jolie) seeks vengeance and goes on a devastating bloodletting, butchering all of Beowulf’s men. This leads to a confrontation in the monster’s cave from which Beowulf returns with yet another tale of struggle and gallant victory. But is our hero telling the whole truth?
In the final act, we jump decades into the future, after Beowulf has become king of Hrothergar’s kingdom and taken Hrothgar’s young queen, Wealthow (Robin Wright Penn) as his wife. Beowulf presides over a sprawling kingdom that has fallen into lethargy and territorial squabbles. But such issues are forgotten when a massive dragon appears in the skies and sets itself on destroying Beowulf and all he holds dear.
The “Beowulf” poem does not find its way to screen unmolested. Several alterations have been made. Numerous characters and events have been deleted. But, what is, perhaps, most shocking is not what has been excluded, but what has been added. Screenwriters Roger Avery (Pulp Fiction) and graphic novelist Neil Gaiman (Stardust) examined the legend on a cellular level and decided to address the glaring inconsistencies, disjoined plot points and unreliable narration that have always plagued the work and earned the ire of certain academics. They have created a “unified field theory” that not only draws disparate stories together and elucidates plot holes, but actually contributes to the existing scholarship.
Scholars agree that when “Beowulf” was originally written, it was a distinctly pagan document later embroidered with Christian symbolism by the monks responsible for its duplication. Screenwriters Gaiman and Avery have actually taken the spiritual imagery even further, heightening Christianity’s clash with the pagan Norse religions and orienting a plot that is shot through with Biblical imagery.
At the very heart of this new Beowulf is the theme of sin and consequence. The film reveals that the temptations we give into, however small, harmless or pleasurable they may seem, often return when we least expect them, rabid and famished for blood. In Beowulf, one character’s sin, which appears as little more than a miniscule indiscretion, quite literally grows into a destructive force beyond human comprehension. The sins of the father are not just visited on the son, but on all those unlucky enough to be near the transgressor. “We men are the monsters now,” Beowulf tells his best friend and comrade in arms, Wiglaf (Brendan Gleeson).
Beowulf is every bit as interested in Faustian bargains as the temptations that set those bargains in motion. Grendel’s naked mother, oozing sex and seduction, and whispering flattering praise, is temptation personified. But the image she chooses to take is not her real form. It is only a masquerade with which to ensnare her prey — her true form is a reptilian monstrosity little different than her misshapen son and every bit as deadly. Like those things that tempt us to stray from the righteous path, her physical sensuality is a mask for her lethality.
Zemeckis, Avery and Gaiman’s Beowulf is not the towering, infallible hero one might expect, but a deeply flawed, all too human man with faults and weaknesses, chief among them hubris and pride. Beowulf sees himself as invincible. He has come to believe in the songs sung about him in mead halls. Worse, while irrefutably emboldened with might and valor, he has taken to exaggerating his exploits, polishing them with little embellishments. But his lies and the indiscretions they camouflage, return to haunt him when he is an old man, and all too aware of his shortcomings and sins.
By utilizing the most modern technology, Zemeckis has breathed new life into an ancient tale. Zemeckis and his special effects wizards accomplished their task much in the same way that Peter Jackson transformed a man in black spandex into the troll Gollum in The Lord of the Rings trilogy. In “performance capture,” minute digital sensors are attached to actors’ bodies allowing computers to interpret the data as movement and generate fluid, lifelike dynamism within a wholly virtual environment. Most of the animated characters resemble their real-life doppelgangers, with the exception of John Malkovich’s Unferth and Winston’s (far slimmer) Beowulf avatar. For Beowulf, the animators’ inspiration was simple — a six-foot-six, incredibly muscular, Norse Jesus Christ.
The performance capture technology is distracting at first precisely because it is so new, and by its very nature, calls attention to itself. Instead of letting yourself be washed away by the story, you find yourself studying the mechanisms that made the story possible in the first place. Gradually, the technology fades into the background, and finally becomes utterly indispensable. Why the filmmakers choose this particular medium may not, at first, be obvious, but by the end, will be abundantly clear.
Grendel is envisioned as a putrid, rotted, decomposing corpse with great fissures in his scaly skin where flesh should be. He lumbers around, muttering in all but indecipherable Old English (the poem’s original tongue). Peculiarly enough, it is precisely this grotesque deformation that ensures he is the most believable of all the characters.
Where the performance capture technology fails is with the human face. The animators have yet to find a way to convincingly render the face with all of its nuance and subtly of emotion. If the eyes are indeed the windows of the soul, then Beowulf’s characters’ souls are impenetrable. They are emotionless, plastic zombies with dead gazes.
Beowulf pushes the limits of its PG-13 rating. If the film had been live action instead of animated, it would certainly garner a hard R-rating. The violence and gore is pervasive. Grendel rips and tears bodies apart and chews them up with relish. Though the film never indulges in any explicit sexual situations, it does inject plenty of innuendo. The film gives equal opportunity to both male and female nudity. Early on, Beowulf battles Grendel in the nude, a primal, animalistic fight that, thanks to a few well placed props, hides Beowulf’ more vulnerable bits, Austen Powers style. Later, when Beowulf confronts Grendel’s mother, she rises from the water of the cave, all shapes and curves and long, unbroken lines. Covered in a thin veneer of gold lacquer, the siren’s nudity is like that of a mannequin, curvatous but anatomically indistinct.
Robert Zemeckis, who began as a Spielberg protégé, has forged his own path as a bold director who, like George Lucas and James Cameron, is perpetually pushing the limits of the cinematic medium. Beowulf may very well represent “a” future of film, though certainly not “the” sole future. Very few people remain concerned that CGI will one day replace actors, but Zemeckis is pointing the way toward a day in which such usurpation could be possible…and believable.
NOTE: Beowulf is being released in both 2-D and 3-D formats. I have always found 3-D distracting and not worth the effort. Beowulf changed all that for me. Watching the film in 3-D was a spellbinding and enthralling experience and, if possible, certainly the preferred option of viewing.