For Beowulf, director Robert Zemeckis spent around $150 million on the latest in high-tech special effects to adapt the thousand-year-old Anglo-Saxon epic poem. Computer animation creates larger-than-life landscapes and monsters, "motion-capture" recording converts actors on a soundstage to ancient kings and warriors, and color 3-D effects hurl blood and blades practically into the audience's laps.
So it's an irony that the most impressive technique of Beowulf is the oldest one: the writing. Pulp Fiction co-author Roger Avary and legendary comic-book scribe Neil Gaiman collaborated for a script that challenges and changes the original text. Beowulf transforms from a straightforward account of glory and derring-do to a more complex inquiry about power and corruption.
Compared with 300, this year's other sword-and-CGI flick, Beowulf reveals a surprising sense of humor. The mead hall of Danish King Hrothgar (Anthony Hopkins provides the voice and movements) rings with bawdy jokes about deflowering virgins and the behavior you'd expect from carousing warriors and wenches. John Malkovich's snide vocals as nasty Unferth sound true to the period while conveying 21st-century sarcasm. The script also makes smart nods to the modern audience, as in the scene when Unferth wonders if they should start praying to "that new Roman God, Christ Jesus."
The fun and games end with an attack by the misshapen Grendel (Crispin Glover), who may be the most grotesque monster in film history, making Gollum of Lord of the Rings look like George Clooney. Strobe-light effects enhance the horror of Grendel's massacre in the mead hall, which features a level of violence more suitable for an R-rated movie.
Motion-capture animation has improved dramatically since Zemeckis first experimented with the form in The Polar Express; the eyes aren't so glassy and the faces have realistic tension in their expressions. When Beowulf (a passionate Ray Winstone) of the Geats arrives to take down Grendel, he's not just a muscle-bound hero, but the most realistic computer-generated human character ever seen, down to the stubble of his beard. Unfortunately, other roles look more like video-game extras, with Queen Wealthow (Robin Wright Penn) featuring rubbery-looking skin.
In the poem you can take Beowulf at face value as a boastful but brave hero, but Avary and Gaiman treat him with more skepticism. Despite his ability to slay sea monsters, we discover that he's not a reliable narrator, and he becomes ensnared in the secret relationship between Hrothgar, Grendel and the monster's mother, a gilded temptress (Angelina Jolie). With its "sins of the father" theme, the film's last act contains echoes of Arthurian legend, not unlike John Boorman's Excalibur. Though the script takes enormous liberties with the original story, its message about the fallibility of human nature seems highly relevant to hero-worshipping contemporary audiences.
One way in which Beowulf keeps faith with the original turns out to be a major mistake. As in the poem, Beowulf fights Grendel unarmed and in the nude, which makes the battle and its buildup resemble one of those Austin Powers gags that keep his unclad crotch artfully concealed. Like the naked scenes of Grendel's mother, we can't focus on the atmosphere of dread when we're wondering if we'll see their junk. (Maybe Zemeckis should go back and add bathing suits.)
I saw Beowulf in digital 3-D, which was superbly rendered and can convert a three-star experience into a four-star film. At the same time, after about 20 minutes I was too caught up in the plot to pay that much attention to the 3-D gimmickry, even during an extended battle with a flying, fire-breathing dragon. Motion-capture remains a work in progress, but Beowulf proves that no matter how advanced cinematic technology becomes, it will never substitute for a compelling story.