For the best part of two decades, Robert Zemeckis had a golden reputation for integrating cutting-edge special effects into engrossing narrative filmmaking. If James Cameron was the man you turned to in justifying action movies, Zemeckis' work was testament to the idea that special effects films could have real emotional depth. Whether it's Back to the Future, Forrest Gump or Who Framed Roger Rabbit, the effects are married quite beautifully to the characters, and the story is always the driving force.
But like Cameron, something happened to Zemeckis which caused him to forget his biggest gift. In Cameron's case, he made Titanic: in his search for epic romance he forsook what was left of Roger Corman's teachings, got rewarded for it, and then made Avatar. With Zemeckis, he embraced motion capture with open arms; the freedom to digitally reshape his actors eroded his ability to capture nuance or humanity, resulting in films which are technically adept but emotionally hollow. After The Polar Express, we now have Beowulf, a muddled and often misjudged take on the Old English legend, which has plenty by way of flesh and blood, but not enough meat on its bones.
First and foremost, there is nothing inherently wrong with motion capture. The Lord of the Rings and King Kong both demonstrated that it can be successfully integrated with live-action, and The Adventures of Tintin showed that making a film entirely within that medium (save for the title sequence) can be effective for certain stories. The problem with Beowulf is not the fact that it is in motion capture: the problem is that Zemeckis doesn't justify using the technology, either on this kind of scale or for this kind of story. As impressed as you might be by the effects, there's always a feeling that the story would be conveyed just as well with ordinary, fleshy human beings.
That said, there are a number of technical shortcomings with the film. The perspective on several shots is out of whack, with Grendel's arms and legs changing size at random until all sense of scale is lost. Some of Zemeckis' camera angles and shot choices are ineffective, with the long pull back from Hrothgar's village into Grendel's cave seeming superfluous. And there is the residual problem of 'dead-eye syndrome', in which the characters look so photo-realistic that we are repulsed by it. While they are slightly less eerie than their counterparts in The Polar Express, we are still hovering over or around uncanny valley, limiting our ability to emotionally connect with the characters.
The second major problem with Beowulf is that it doesn't do justice to the source material. The film has a handful of interesting ideas or themes (we'll come to those later), but none of them serve the ideas of the original story: some of them are so far removed that it borders on contempt. The film is written by Roger Avary and Neil Gaiman, the latter of whom has a great record in the fantasy genre, having written Stardust and Coraline. Either the screenplay was a huge misstep in amongst a rich vein of form, or Zemeckis was simply unable to interpret it in a satisfying, cinematic manner.
At this juncture you may make the point that being faithful to the source material isn't a guarantee of quality. You can point to my many Disney reviews, in which I praise the likes of Peter Pan despite the huge departures from their original sources. There is, however, a fundamental difference between creating 'the Disney version' of a story and the manner in which Zemeckis has approached Beowulf. Disney has always attempted to bring something new to every tale it has tackled: the changes usually represented a creative engagement with the story, even if that engagement resulted in failure. With Beowulf, Zemeckis has stripped the legend down to its bare bones and beyond, ignoring all the really interesting parts and only keeping what he can turn into a rollicking rollercoaster ride. If Disney is a benevolent, occasionally inspired dictator, Zemeckis is in this instance a ruthless asset-stripper.
The original poem was a celebration of tribal values, with emphasis being placed on kinship, loyalty and honour in the face of great evil. A number of scholars, including J. R. R. Tolkien, have noted it as a meeting point between pagan and Christian literary traditions; the first manuscripts imply that it is a Christianised retelling of Danish culture with strong hints of the Old Testament. But aside from a couple of patriotic speeches, Beowulf makes no attempt to approach or engage with either the themes of the story or its reputation.
What the film attempts instead is to use the story of Beowulf as a starting point for its own ideas about the fantasy genre. Some of its ideas attempt to rework the story, others are more abstract and unrelated to the source, in a manner which is both frustrating and tantalising. The main reworking concerns the relationship between Hrothgar, Beowulf and Grendel's mother,. The Biblical interpretation, which sees Grendel and his mother as the cursed offspring of Cain, is replaced by a Freudian one, in which the human protagonists are part of a cyclical Oedipal struggle rooted in the desire to control humanity.
The idea of human warriors making forbidden, sexual pacts with supernatural beings to ensure peace is in and of itself very interesting. On the one hand, it gives Grendel some form of motivation, making him the consequence of something rather than just another monster. He becomes very much a body horror character, like the strange creatures in David Cronenberg's The Brood or Andrzej Zulawski's Possession. On the other hand, this idea draws comparisons with Faust and H. P. Lovecraft; it characterises humans as being at the mercy of ancient demons, who either give them what they desire only to betray them, or who simply allow them to live in fear until the time is right to wreak destruction.
There is also a fleeting exploration of the process by which legends and reputations come about. When he first arrives at court, Beowulf is questioned by Unferth (John Malkovich with a silly accent) about the monsters he has killed. Beowulf spins a yarn about fighting sea monsters and swimming across oceans, with his men remarking sotto voce about him changing certain details. The film never goes into any great depth with this idea, but it's appropriate to raise it in some form, considering the contentious origins of Beowulf itself.
But for all the interesting implications present in these ideas, they are ultimately drowned out by the insistence on big, dumb spectacle. Even in the quieter scenes, Zemeckis is determined to keep things barrelling along, regularly cutting when it is unnecessary or composing his shots just so he can show off the technology. The film is obsessed with throwing stuff at the screen as opposed to building up character or mood, and eventually we just give up and let it all wash over us in total bemusement.
There are any number of moments in Beowulf which will make you scratch your head in disbelief. Beowulf himself looks the part, with the body of Adonis and a full head of hair - but the second that Ray Winstone speaks, the whole film jumps the shark and the only sane response is to snigger. Angelina Jolie plays the sexualised Grendel's mother as well as you'd expect - but that doesn't explain why a shape-shifting lizard should have feet resembling stiletto heels. And then there's Beowulf's fight scene with Grendel, featuring the former fighting in the nude. While naked combat may have existed in days of yore, the whole fight is structured like an Austin Powers gag, with numerous bawdy coverings for Beowulf's crotch.
This brings us on to the flesh-ripping violence in the film. Some of this was to be expected, since stories about warriors and dragons are not known for their restraint. But while we can forgive or overlook the bawdy elements, the violence itself is disturbingly full-on. The BBFC gave the film a 12 certificate, arguing that since the deaths were animated it constituted fantasy violence. But the realistic motion capture means that the animated gore is just as gross and graphic as it would be in a normal horror movie. Grendel is so grotesque and sinewy that he could have wandered out of Hellraiser, and the film lingers on the blood and detail more than enough to warrant a 15 instead.
Beowulf is a hugely disappointing miss from Zemeckis, reflecting his creative decline and epitomising Hollywood's trend towards empty spectacle over engrossing storytelling. It's not a total failure, with a number of interesting if irrelevant ideas and enough in-your-face action to please fans of mindless escapism. But ultimately its liberties with the story and technical shortcomings brings the whole thing down, reducing an intriguing and important legend into Shrek fighting Frank from Hellraiser, on a rollercoaster, minus his trousers.