Further advancing the much-vaunted performance-capture technology he unleashed with “The Polar Express,” director Robert Zemeckis delivers a muscular, sometimes stirring but ultimately soulless reinterpretation of “Beowulf.” For all its visual sweep and propulsively violent action, this bloodthirsty rendition of the Old English epic can’t overcome the disadvantage of being enacted by digital waxworks rather than flesh-and-blood Danes and demons. Clearly targeting the “300” crowd with its commercially shrewd combo of revisionist mythology and gory mayhem, pic should draw rousing biz worldwide, particularly from younger audiences.
Extra booty from 3-D coffers should also help, as the Paramount release will open Nov. 16 in standard 2-D, 3-D and Imax 3-D. The giant-screen format impressively maximizes the film’s essentially assaultive approach, pelting the viewer with arrows, blood, spittle and other assorted viscera — graphic enough to warrant an R rating, had the pic (rated PG-13) been rendered in live-action. The original poem may have been composed in Anglo-Saxon and steeped in Scandinavian legend, but Zemeckis’ robustly stylized movie speaks in the very American idiom of the Hollywood pop epic.
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No doubt aware that for many, the mere mention of “Beowulf” will conjure tedious memories of high school English class, fantasy novelist Neil Gaiman and co-scribe Roger Avary (“The Rules of Attraction,” “Pulp Fiction”) have taken some intriguing liberties with the heroic narrative, presenting it as a study in the corrupting influences of lust and power and casting the titular warrior-king’s activities in a more treacherous light. The writers have also infused the saga with an aura of heightened sexuality and bawdy humor that feels decidedly, at times distractingly modern for a work set in sixth-century Denmark.
Result is, at least, a much livelier piece of storytelling than the charmless “Polar Express,” in which Zemeckis first attached little white dots to his actors’ faces and bodies to record their performances. While the similarly digitized figures in “Beowulf” (which was submitted to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences as an animated film) look eerily close to storefront mannequins at a Renaissance Faire, the soft-edged, photorealistic style — suspended somewhere between live-action and animation, fairy tale and videogame — feels somewhat more appropriate in this context, lending the story a vaguely mythic sheen.
“Beowulf” opens amid much drunken revelry in the court of elderly King Hrothgar (Anthony Hopkins) and his much younger but long-suffering wife, Wealthow (Robin Wright Penn). But all merrymaking ceases with the arrival of Grendel (Crispin Glover), a hideous, graphically rendered demon who looks like a refugee from the “Resident Evil” franchise, and who brutally dismembers and devours Hrothgar’s men but spares the weak-willed monarch himself.
Enter the dashingly goateed Beowulf (Ray Winstone) and his fellow Geatsmen, who arrive on Danish shores determined to end Grendel’s reign of terror. Handsome, boastful but less than forthcoming about his weaknesses, Beowulf blithely strips down for a head-on clash with the equally naked (if much less photogenic) monster in the king’s great hall. Protracted fight sequence, which ends in Beowulf’s victory, is as impressive for its “Austin Powers”-style cover-up strategies as for its acrobatic choreography.
But Beowulf soon faces an even deadlier challenge from Grendel’s vengeful mother, whom he sets out to destroy in her cavernous lair. Our hero turns out to be no match for a viper played by Angelina Jolie in full-on seductress mode; this reptilian goddess makes a truly show-stopping entrance, her nude, gold-smeared body stalking into the frame on stiletto heels, accompanied by the insidiously suggestive strains of Alan Silvestri’s score.
In the most significant departure from the text, Beowulf makes a deal with the she-devil — sealed with some blatantly phallic imagery — that cements his position as Hrothgar’s heir apparent. Purists and scholars won’t be thrilled with this sordid twist (which handily connects the film’s first half with events that play out decades later), although Beowulf arguably emerges as a more flawed and genuinely tragic hero as a result.
While the epic poem preserved the uneasy tension between the era’s Christian and pagan influences, Gaiman and Avary’s script jettisons the spiritual underpinnings of Beowulf’s quest entirely; later, he even blames “the Christ-God” for ending a glorious era of human valor. Indeed, there is no place for God in this barbaric (if highly marketable) world of sex and swordplay, where lust is an all-consuming force and graphic disembowelment is served up for the audience’s delectation.
But a deeper moral void is evident in the way Zemeckis prioritizes spectacle over human engagement, in his reliance on a medium that allows for enormous range and fluidity in its visual effects yet reduces his characters to 3-D automatons. While the technology has improved since 2004’s “Polar Express” (particularly in the characters’ more lifelike eyes), the actors still don’t seem entirely there.
Sporting some physical enhancements — and consequently looking more like Sean Bean in “The Lord of the Rings” than himself — the gravel-voiced Winstone manfully conveys the character’s hubris (“I am Beowulf!” is his war cry and aspiring catchphrase) and, later, his weariness and regret. But this Beowulf is more vocally than visually commanding, never fully engaging the emotions the way a righteous medieval badass should.
Other actors do make vivid impressions in smaller roles: John Malkovich is enjoyably unctuous as Beowulf’s jealous court rival, Unferth; Wright Penn evinces a wounded beauty as a queen betrayed by two husbands; and Brendan Gleeson brings welcome gravitas and humor to Beowulf’s faithful sidekick, Wiglaf.
Compensating somewhat for the mostly torch-lit interiors, Zemeckis and cinematographer Robert Presley (who also shot “Polar Express”) orchestrate visual flourishes — majestic crane shots of the frozen Nordic landscape, fiery-blue strobe effects for Grendel’s first attack — that are especially striking in 3-D. Doug Chiang’s production design and Gabriella Pescucci’s costumes are scaled appropriately to the primitivism of the setting.
Again and again, this “Beowulf” references how its hero’s deeds will become the stuff of legend, forever enshrined in bards’ songs, in plays and, by extension, in the movies. Too bad Zemeckis, striving for the immortality of myth, is unwilling to simply let his characters be mortal.