Robert Zemeckis’ BEOWULF is one of the great disappointments of the year. Even after seeing it in the much hyped 3-D IMAX format, I was left completely underwhelmed. Sure, the technology is cool and the movie has some fun moments, but overall, it’s boring, cheesy, campy, and repetitive. Zemeckis’ passion for and reliance on his much discussed motion-capture CGI technique has started to overshadow his wonderful storytelling abilities. True, BEOWULF offers some simple pleasures: you get to see Angelina Jolie mostly nude, there are some nice fight sequences, and the great Ray Winstone is a true man’s-man. But the exciting moments are few and far between, and the story’s repetitious structure becomes a slog, especially after the one hour mark. Having never read the epic poem that screenwriters Roger Avary and Neil Gaiman have adapted for the screen, I wasn’t comparing the film to its source material; I was at the IMAX theater for pure spectacle. And it just didn’t pop the way I thought it would.
Winstone is Beowulf, the mighty monster slayer who is brought to a Dutch village by King Hrothgar (a de-aged Anthony Hopkins) that is being terrorized by a sadistic creature named Grendel (a disgustingly rendered, motion-captured Crispin Glover). Grendel gets upset when the king and his villagers throw drunken parties; it gives him a headache. Or something to that effect. So Grendel makes it a habit of party crashing, usually with the goal of slaughtering everyone in the vicinity. After an inexplicably nude Beowulf takes on Grendel in a one on one fight to the death, Beowulf realizes a much greater danger lays in wait for him: mommy. Grendel’s seductive and evil mother (the otherworldly sexy Jolie) makes him an offer he can’t refuse and the plot thickens. Beowulf becomes a king and fights a massive dragon, all the while still contending with his actions stemming from his encounter with Grendel’s mother. The message of the film is simple and timeless: hot women can’t be trusted.
I pretty much hate the motion-capture process when it’s used exclusively to tell a story. The entire film looked like a Playstation video game and while the 3-D elements were at times striking, the overall effect had an artificial and numbing quality to the images. When director Gore Verbinski and the geniuses at ILM created the motion-capture character of Davy Jones in the PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN franchise, they chose to create the character as a motion-capture CGI creation. But the reason why that worked so well was because the rest of the film was shot live action combined with real actors on real sets in real time. The overall effect of seeing so many computer effects in BEOWULF completely detaches the viewer from the viewing experience. Fine, some of the renderings were amazing. Jolie looked even hotter than she does in real life, and Winstone looked pretty cool. But the other female characters were soft and gauzy looking, and there’s something so strange about looking at a younger, almost alien looking Anthony Hopkins. The process was never consistent and it just grew irritating. And while the 3-D was snazzy in fits and starts, it all started to feel like the world’s most expensive pop-up book.
BEOWULF makes a huge step back for Zemeckis, a filmmaker I have loved without reservation for many years. I found his last 3-D motion-capture film, THE POLAR EXPRESS, to be a truly thrilling cinematic experience. Some of the enjoyment that I got from that film was on a purely sentimental level; the novel was read by my father every year at Christmas. The motion-capture IMAX 3-D experience of THE POLAR EXPRESS was infinitely more enjoyable when compared to what’s on display in BEOWULF. In THE POLAR EXPRESS, you're on that gigantic train as it skids over that frozen lake and winds through the snow-capped mountains. I never got that visceral rush once while watching BEOWULF. Zemeckis seems to have lost interest in making real films. Much like James Cameron, Zemeckis has become an innovator first, filmmaker second. And I am disappointed by that. I loved BACK TO THE FUTURE 1-3, CAST AWAY, FORREST GUMP, CONTACT, and WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT? (where Zemeckis was innovating AND telling a great story). The way that Zemeckis, in the past, has blended his special effects into live action shooting is nothing short of trendsetting and remarkable. But again, in movies past, the special effects served the story, rather than becoming the story. I maintain that if Zemeckis had mounted a live-action $150 million version of BEOWULF with a few motion-captured characters (Grendel, the dragon), the overall result would have been much, much better. Actually, it probably would have been amazing. Imagine BRAVEHEART in 3-D. GLADIATOR in 3-D. Now we’re talking. Creating an entire film in motion-capture is silly and childish. Why we’re treated to a glimpse of Hopkins’ digitally smoothed-over naked rear-end as he plays a younger version of himself is just the tip of the ice berg.
I wanted to enjoy BEOWULF. I had every reason to believe that I would love it. But I didn't. And I had a nagging sense during almost the entire film that Zemeckis was more interested in playing around with whatever the latest technology was/is, and that he lost sight of telling a rip-roaring action adventure story. When I initially heard that Zemeckis was going to make this film, I was very excited. The prospect of a 3-D IMAX action film on a scale like this was something to be excited for. And even though I wasn't a huge fan of the motion-capture process, I had faith in Zemeckis as I've never truly been let down by one of his films. Alas, BEOWULF turned out to be just that—a major league let down.