Friday, May 30, 2008

The temptations of the hero: Beowulf

Way back in AD 507, in cold, primitive Denmark, there’s not much to do but party down all night in the mead hall. Given that director Robert Zemeckis used the same performance capture technology in Beowulf that he used for Polar Express, all of the partyers look slightly stiff and cartoonish. That’s because he connected digital sensors to the actors’ faces and bodies and then figured out a way to electronically reconfigure their facial expressions and gestures within the computer generated world of the film. On the one hand, this gives Beowulf a freewheeling visual style that can be quite delightful, especially in its action scenes. The camera’s point of view can zip about wherever it likes—from the magic cave to the bottom of the ocean. As the Danes get drunk, the camera’s point of view flies out to the frozen woods so quickly, the tree limbs whistle by. But meanwhile the actors look buried in digitalized pancake makeup, and I found myself wondering—is that John Malkovich under that CGI mask?

The film begins with the grotesque sight of plump King Hrothgar (Anthony Hopkins) gyrating around in the firelight without much clothes in drunken toga style revelry. His youngish Queen Wealthow (Robin Wright Penn) looks on with disdain. The Danes’ mead-soaked fraternity partying bothers the large deformed monster Grendel (Crispin Glover), so he abruptly appears and shreds a bunch of the drunken soldiers while shrieking in a sickly blue light. By the next morning, most of the Danish court is dead, so Hrothgar says “What we need is a hero.”

Conveniently, a Viking ship stops by with buff Ray Winstone as Beowulf proclaiming “I’m here to kill your monster.” With his trusty redhead sidekick Wiglaf (Brendan Gleeson), Beowulf impresses everyone as a good possible monster-slayer, although the snarky Unferth (John Malkovich) has his doubts about exactly how many sea monsters Beowulf really killed by plunging his sword into their eyes. As everyone party once again the mead hall to lure Grendel back, Beowulf shows his aesthetic side when he proclaims Queen Wealthow “beautiful.” Then when she starts to play her harp and sing, he once again calls it “beautiful” before going to sleep in the buff. Since he says a “sword is no match for demon magic,” Beowulf chooses to fight Grendel naked. In order to hang on to the PG-13 rating, the filmmakers had to be very clever about how to shoot this scene without showing too much buff blond hero, and I was reminded of similar camera tricks in Austin Powers movies. Anyway, by yelling “Tonight will be different! I am the ripper, the terror, the slasher. I am the teeth in the darkness! The talons in the night! My name is strength! And lust! And power! I AM BEOWULF!,” he does manage to rip off Grendel’s arm, thereby mortally wounding the monster.

Apparently, Beowulf did not read the fine print, because soon after Grendel slinks home to die, his enraged mother slaughters most of the Viking warriors and hangs them from the mead hall rafters. When Beowulf goes to complain to King Hrothgar, he says wistfully “I hoped that she had left long ago.” So now, Beowulf must go off to a crevice in the mountain to face a largely nude but gold-accented Angelina Jolie wearing anachronistic high heels to show off her demon legs.

Can Beowulf resist Grendel’s mother’s charms? What happens to the gold Royal Dragon Horn? As the film girds its loins for a final fight scene with a dragon, I remained impressed with its visuals, but ultimately skeptical of the flashy (or flashing?) techniques the filmmakers used to jazz up an old famous poem. For all of its machismo, blood, boasting, and drunken carousing, Beowulf ultimately appears uncertain of its masculinity. He can kill monsters galore, but at heart Beowulf proves just as dumbstruck before modern celebrity as the rest of us.

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