Robert Zemeckis’ Beowulf

poster artI’m going to try an experiment. I’m going to write this review freeform while I watch it. We’re going to call this one Beowolf: a Realtime Review by Camille Alexa. None of that namby-pamby “wait to digest the entire thing and carefully agonize about a detailed analysis of the whole.” Nope. I’m rockin’ it realtime, baby. Impressions via invisible magic a.k.a. wireless internet straight from mi casa to the Green Man offices. Might as well be transported by time-wrinkling pixies, eh?

My first impression isn’t favorable. Much as a lit zine poetry editor quickly grows to loath doggerel verse, so does any rational modern SFF enthusiast grow to loathe bad computer animation. Beowolf isn’t bad for what it is, but that’s like saying steak tartare isn’t bad for what it is when you’re a hardcore vegan — not everything is to everyone’s taste. In fact, nothing is ever to everyone’s taste. I’m not hardcore anything, but meat and fish and this particular kind of almost-but-not-quite-real animation aren’t for me. This may be a simple matter of preference, but the overwhelming loathing everyone I know expresses for this film (against which I keep plugging my ears with my fingers and sing-songing “la-la-la!” until they shut up already so I can form my own untainted opinions) indicates this may be a rather widespread and lasting impression left by this particular offering.

Opening scene. Sex and debauchery performed by animated characters with that weird trying-too-hard realism that ends up being strangely less satisfying even than claymation or stick-figure drawings. The animation is just close enough to reality that one is continually distracted and even repulsed by the ways in which it’s not realistic: the slight misproportions of the human limbs, the way the angles of the characters’ heads when they speak to each other aren’t quite aligned, as though the trajectories of their gazes are continually canted off in inexplicably close-but-no-cigar tangents — a universe where genuine eye contact is impossible.

So the monster Grendel shows up in a huff. Good. I was getting tired of unsubtly quivering globes of she-Viking bosom, unappealing and unrealistic in a manner achievable only though moving animation having passed through the many-steps-removed process required by live-action mocap, extensive programming, and quality assurance teams. The gore is considerably more graphic than the sex. Lots of thane-bodies flying around, pierced and skewered on random sharp spikes conveniently incorporated into the feast hall decor. And another! And another! Right through the mead-gut. These guys must’ve seen that all spikes home decorating special issue of Metropolitan Home.

I’m trying to pay attention to the dialogue here, since co-writer Neil Gaiman is the main reason I’m watching this to begin with, and I figure the best place to get the benefit of his screenplay input might be in the spoken portions. I’m so far not seeing any of the charm or straight-forward unaffectedness of, say, Princess Mononoke (a fantastic film). As far as I can tell, Danes in 506 AD are just dumber than horn-helmeted posts. I’m longing for even the subtle but compelling cheesiness of another much-reviled Grendel story that I thoroughly enjoyed (against the grain! — I don’t mind going against the grain!), The Thirteenth Warrior.

Okay. Our man Beowolf’s totally on the scene. I’m still so distracted — in a very bad way — by the crazy encephalitic quality of the human figures, by the way they can’t seem to quite figure out how to look each other in the eyes as they speak, by the way their fingers seem eerily sausage-like, swollen and without functioning knuckles. I have to look away, groaning in a “oh no he didn’t!” misery when Beowolf suggestively drops his Viking drawers at the heroine and leers off-kilter somewhere over her left shoulder.

I won’t go on. I wouldn’t want to give any spoilers for a thousand-year-old story everyone was forced to read in school at least twice. Will I finish watching this movie? Of course! A reviewer has an obligation to fully assess a work in its entirety, regardless of personal torture quotient. I hope I’ve given you enough of a glimpse into whether this particular version will be something you’d like to run out and rectify not having seen. And I’m totally leaving my computer up while I watch. It has taken considerably longer for me to watch, type, watch, type, watch, laugh, shudder, type this than it has taken you to read it. In fact, the thing we all know happens to the first monster has just happened. If anything new and unexpected occurs in the forthcoming scenes with his mom, I’ll come back and let you know. Don’t hold your breath, yo.

… Hello, hello! Okay. There are some sexual plot hiccups that seem peculiar … erm, particular … to this version. I’m not finding them especially compelling — rather forced, in fact — but in all fairness the post-Grendel portion is somewhat more interesting than the spike death oriented slow-mo mayhem. For the first time, blood-and-guts action takes a back seat to more subtle, dialogue- and plot-driven action. The final quarter of the movie is a vast improvement. Some darker, weirder, more Gaiman-esque flavoring manifests in the visuals and plot twists. It’s hard to have a talent combo including the likes of Neil Gaiman, Anthony Hopkins, and John Malkovich without producing something interesting, unless it’s all screwed up with some kooky, malproportioned computer-generated … oh. Nevermind.

(Paramount, 2007)

[If you’re looking for our review of the even harder panned 1999 film of Beowulf, you’ll find it here.]

Camille Alexa

Camille Alexa is the alter ego of another odd-lit writer who also loves warm bread, big dogs, serial commas, and post-apocalyptic love stories. Her work has appeared in Fantasy Magazine, Ellery Queen's & Alfred Hithcock's Mystery Magazines, and numerous anthologies such as Machine of Death and The Exile Book of New Canadian Noir. Her collection of short stories, PUSH OF THE SKY, received a starred review in Publishers Weekly, was shortlisted for the Endeavor Award, and was an official reading selection of Portland's Powell's Books Science Fiction Book Club.

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