The Theory of Chaos

Monday, December 24, 2007


Full review behind the jump


: Robert Zemeckis
: Screenplay by Neil Gaiman & Roger Avary, based on the epic poem by “Anonymous”
: Robert Zemeckis, Steve Starkey, Jack Rapke, Steve Bing
: Ray Winstone, Anthony Hopkins, Brendan Gleeson, Robin Wright Penn, John Malkovich, Crispin Glover, Angelina Jolie, Alison Lohman

The technology that goes into the making of
Beowulf does what makeup cannot do, allowing husky-sized 50-year old character actor Ray Winstone to play an action hero with the body of a 30-year-old Ultimate Fighting Champion. Set free of the physical form, an essence can emerge from the actor – in his case, that of testosterone and willpower, the inborn knowledge of how to carry Alpha Maledom.

Filmmaker Robert Zemeckis previously used it to allow Tom Hanks to act out multiple characters – little boy, train conductor, ghostly hobo, even Santa Claus – in the animation/performance-capture hybrid film of
The Polar Express. What we will appreciate in years to come with regards to the craft of acting because of this is cause for some excitement; as is the ability to create faraway worlds, and monsters and dragons, and have it all be aesthetically of a piece with itself. A special effect cannot stick out when the whole movie is a special effect. The ability of artists at computer stations to create a simulacrum of humanity that can display complex, even compellingly enigmatic, facial expressions and body language, is indeed advanced with this technically-ambitious work; the subtlest movement of the jaw can now carry meaning.

But every shiny new technology ultimately ends up reinforcing an old truth – you still need to tell a good story; and Zemeckis here has chosen a story that defies words like “enigmatic”. The ancient epic poem
Beowulf is a dark, wild, and beautiful spectacle, but keenly psychological it is not. Its narrative is more song-like than dramaturgical, self-contained verses of incident drenched generously in historical context rather than the airtight no-loose-threads cohesion of Hollywood 3-Act screenwriting. Wrenching the poem’s major events into a modern structure, screenwriters Neil Gaiman & Roger Avary drastically distort both their subject and his deeds. If the poem is glorification of Beowulf’s greatest hits, this is more like his Unauthorized Biography, lurid and slanderous instead of rousing.

Those who know the epic poem will recognize the progression of encounters. The hunting hall of King Hrothgar (Anthony Hopkins) is invaded nightly by the beast Grendel, who slaughters even the progression of champions who come far in wide to face him in the hopes of reward. Hrothgar was once a proud warrior, now a little too old and a little too fond of drink, and his attitude towards Grendel – performed by Crispin Glover as an agonized, but not un-pitiable, wretch – hints at a more complex history.

And then Beowulf (Winstone) and his band of warriors arrive by longboat – independent contractors in the field of violence, if you will. Beowulf spends his first hours on shore answering every query or criticism with the announcement “I am Beowulf!” This is a man in need of business cards. His square-off with Grendel goes better than the previous ones, which brings both rewards and new dangers, because Grendel had a mother, and her powers far exceed his.

Grendel’s mother is never described in the poem as looking like a beautiful woman, nor was she described to have golden nipples, shiny and glistening wet. She’s performed by Angelina Jolie with predatory eyes and a purring voice, and except for the pointy tail is the least-altered of any of the characters from their flesh-and-blood performers; because really, who’s going to try and make improvements? But when she faces Beowulf, and offers him many temptations where one specific one seems more than ample, I ought to be thinking about the destiny of that moment; instead I was thinking about the legal implications of a technology that can so easily thwart any actress’s no-nudity clause.

And maybe it’s because as dynamically-visual as Beowulf is, it doesn’t seem to know whether it takes itself seriously. There are big old-fashioned themes at work here, about the appetite for power, and the permanence of our sins (a faddish new religion involving crosses is making some inroads). Beowulf is a man whose soul withers as his fame grows, and even though that’s not strictly canon I might have gone for the ride if the movie didn’t have this impish urge to reject any signs of maturity as they gather. We spend a whole action sequence with Beowulf in the buff, playing the same hide-the-naughty-bits game as Austin Powers. This is what the signature Old English epic needs to keep a modern audience’s attention?

This is an enthralling movie to look at, and has an exciting soundtrack of booming and clanging and screaming noises. Mayhem is never far away, and the climactic tussle is, purely as a piece of action filmmaking, a thrill. Some of the actors demonstrate a knack for this challenging new medium – Winstone as said above gets to show both icy swagger and lusty appetite in a role we otherwise never would have enjoyed him in. Hopkins is particularly good as the corrupted and debauched Hrothgar, landing sloppily in his throne, pawing ineffectually at his sad young bride (Robin Wright Penn) while his eyes regret old choices. And Glover as Grendel, his body contorted, his voice mewling, gets to take the conflicted suffering of Lord of the Rings’ Gollum, already operatic, and wrench it to a yet louder plateau – rock opera, perhaps.

How this relates to the original Beowulf, whose survival is in no way threatened, ceases to matter, I guess. Movies this expensive need studio execs to greenlight them and teenagers to buy the tickets, so to satisfy the former we get worn-out clichés in boldface, and to draw in the latter we get blood and bosoms. Why should it be, though, that filmmakers breaking new ground every year in the technology of film seem so afraid of a story that’s survived over a millennium?


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