Dead men walking 


click to enlarge Well admit that the CG hair in this still looks real. Then - again, so does the hair at Madame Tussauds.
  • Well admit that the CG hair in this still looks real. Then again, so does the hair at Madame Tussauds.

Beowulf (PG-13)

Carmike 10, Chapel Hills 15, Cinemark 16, Cinemark 16 IMAX, Tinseltown

It would be unfair to call the soulless, heartless and corporate Beowulf pornographic. Pornography, at least, attempts to engage us, if only on a level of animal instinct. But this example of the latest "advance" in animation technology is sterile, synthetic and almost completely unengaging on a human level. It's animated but inanimate.

Director Robert Zemeckis spent who knows how many tens of millions of dollars in an effort to perfectly simulate, down to the tiniest detail, with meticulous microscopic accuracy, the human face. As Zemeckis surely discovered way too late in the production of Beowulf, there is no number of cleverly rendered lines around the eyes or individually drawn facial hairs or specifically calculated skin pores that can enliven a dead cartoon face, or capture all the nuances of emotion that act as evidence of life.

But you can't even call Beowulf cartoonish. Cartoons, when they're done right, are visually metaphoric, symbolic, impressionistic. We don't look to, say, the stylized visages of Beauty or the Beast or Princess Fiona for subtle traces of human expression. So why, then, does Zemeckis bother with hooking up human actors to sensors, capturing their motion, recording their voices and translating them into computerized images that, for the most part, look exactly like them (except for the dead eyes and slack facades)? What's the point? Why not just, you know, film the actors?

Well, maybe because, it does make sense that, if you want to tell a story like this set in medieval Denmark and featuring places that no longer exist and monsters that never existed at all you would want to use the best special effects available to create or re-create those things.

To their credit, Zemeckis and his team of wizards do that wonderfully. The snowy mountain vistas and ancient castles and dragons are all fine, and would have been impossible to invent or replicate so well without computer assistance. But stories are usually about people, and, here, the real people have been rendered no pun intended curiously absent.

It's extra disturbing because of the extrapolation of the Beowulf tale of old by screenwriters Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary. Their adaptation explores the monster Grendel's (Crispin Glover) motivation in attacking the ancient Danish kingdom the denial of a basic humanity he deserves. It also expands from the original epic poem on the monster-slayer Beowulf (Ray Winstone), granting him flaws and a hubris unseen before.

Worse, Zemeckis seems to want to be both gritty and bawdy in his telling. Unfortunately, he's overly coy about it in all ways. When Beowulf insists that he and the monster Grendel fight their big battle in the buff not just without weapons but without a stitch of clothing an actual warm-blooded human actor might have been able to sell us on this rash audacity and confident physical prowess. Instead, we're given the peculiarly bashful specter of a Ken doll jumping around in front of strategically placed swords and crossbeams and such. If this is meant to humanize the hero, it fails. Terribly.

It'd be nice to have seen what a director like, say, Terry Gilliam would have made of this. His version would not, of course, have made good fodder for IMAX and 3D versions, nor the upcoming Beowulf video game. But it would have been scaled for people, not for corporate synergy.


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