I’m still processing my feelings about the film version of Beowulf that Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary wrote for Robert Zemeckis. I've seen it twice, first in 3-D its opening weekend and then in 2-D on Saturday when I took Alicia. (She can't see 3-D films; think the words "anxiety" and "vertigo" and you should understand why.) There are amazing images, and silly ones; intriguing ideas, and silly ones. Gaiman and Avary -- I'm not so sure about Zemeckis, who I think is not as interested in story as they are -- try to make Beowulf more immediate and relatable, but still there's that remove built into the original poem, an episodic yarn about a warrior who fights a monster, fights another monster, then gets old and fights one more monster. The connections and changes they made to better explain what happens (and why it happens) are indeed clever, but seem a little too tacked-on; the original story resists their explaining, and the result is this kind of feathered-fish of a film that's gotten very mixed reviews. (I think I was last this conflicted about a film way back in 2001, with A.I., though I'll admit I liked Beowulf a fair amount more than A.I. And I'm really enjoying the novelization by Caitlin R. Kiernan, which adds depth, motivation, and interior thought that the film can only suggest.)
I was first exposed to Beowulf in junior high, both excerpts and reactions (I was especially fond of Richard Wilbur’s poem that stressed the story’s unreal quality: “The land was overmuch like scenery…”). I got more out of the poem later, when my junior high/high school friend David Carlton turned out to be a great fan of Beowulf; he'd talk about what impressed him about it, and he helped me better visualize the story. And then a few years ago I read Seamus Heaney’s great translation of the original poem…and then re-read it immediately, out loud, as the story was first told. (I read it in Modern English, so it wasn’t totally the way it was told 1,300 years ago, but I did read portions of the Old English original that’s printed on the left-side pages of Heaney’s book.)
In a way, visualizing Beowulf through motion-capture fits the poem. It shows us a recognizable world that’s still a little “off” from ours; an attempt to do this in live-action could have just been awkward. I doubt 300 – which I didn’t like much, sorry, happyspector – would have worked on film without its computer-generated and hyper-real environments, an approach not that different from Beowulf. The motion-capture visuals take some getting used to, and judging from lots of peoples’ reactions to the film and its ads, most of us aren’t really used to it yet. Zemeckis, to his credit, calms down the visual style from the “Hey! Look what we can doooooo!” demo-reel quality of some of The Polar Express, also done with motion capture. But like most films shot with 3-D in mind, Beowulf goes annoyingly over-the-top and overboard with the throwing of stuff at the camera. The format can be subtler than that; when the filmmakers aren’t too carried away with showing off, the 3-D could make a film a more immersive experience. (Maybe the 3-D presentation of next year's Coraline film will manage that. I'll hope, but I doubt I'll become a big fan of 3-D.)
Almost no one comes off very well in this telling of the tale. You can't quite trust most of the characters, whether it's Beowulf with his over-the-top boasts and lies of omission, Hrothgar with his carefully worded sort-of-truths, or the sniveling, beating-happy Unferth (John Malkovich, unfortunately not quite theatrical enough). Only Beowulf's troubled second-mate Wiglaf (Brendan Gleeson) and Grendel's mother in her moments with her son -- especially after Grendel's death -- come nearest to being truly sympathetic. (This is all reinforced in Kiernan's novelization; I've gone "Oh no, he'd do that?" more often than I expected to...) These are flawed, difficult people, and with the additional remove of their computer-processed look -- which is less effective the younger and smoother-skinned a character is -- we have trouble connecting to them the way the filmmakers sought. The depth of character is there, but we as the audience are not really encouraged to seek it.
I was disappointed in how relatively little the human women of the story got to do. (Obviously the original poem isn't a great role-for-women story, with one big exception, but Gaiman and Avery have had more interesting female characters before.) This improves as the film reaches its third act -- Alicia noted "It's good she [Wealthow] grew a spine" -- but still there seems to be only so much for the women here to do: basically, be lust-objects (either willing or unwilling) who most often look either scared or bothered, except when the servant girls are tittering about Beowulf's "legs -- all three of them." The one scene Queen Wealthow gets with only a fellow female and no one else, when she talks to servant girl Ursula right before the dragon first attacks, was a moment where I admit my attention wandered for a bit.
And I wish the filmmakers had taken the full plunge and gone for an R rating. This story is almost R-rated by its very nature; had it been an R, it may have avoided the silliness of the convenient-props-blocking-Beowulf's-nake
I was most caught up and engaged in the film's bloody, fiery finale, where Beowulf fights the dragon. That made the film worth it; I loved the dragon's look, I could feel the stakes of the fight, and I could wince at the damage Beowulf does to himself to stop the monster (you squeamish? You don't want to know what he does). And the very ending is surprisingly impressionistic for a major-studio blockbuster; rather ambiguous. The way I read the ending is this: in the past both Hrothgar and Beowulf had entered into a Faustian bargain with Grendel's mother to have their stories be told for millennia, and that somehow Wiglaf becomes complicit in that, whether by what he does or by what he doesn't do (thus the ambiguity as the film fades out). I think it's kind of a darker version of the slogan "Frodo Lives"; there's a reason the story of Beowulf stayed with us, and it's not a happy reason.
So: that's my thought. And I still feel I haven't expressed myself very well about this film.
P.S. My favorite Beowulf comment from Alicia: "He should be proud: he sired a dragon. Hrothgar just sired a monster."