Beowulf (2007)

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Beowulf
Dir. Robert ZemeckisPremiered November 5, 2007

Good fucking Lord.

The release of Robert Zemeckis’ Beowulf in 2007 was serendipitous for me, as I was studying the original text in 12th grade English. I didn’t see it, and it wouldn’t have been any help, but it was there. Beowulf was an odd choice of film to make: it’s an early medieval epic poem with an episodic plot and no real theme except “Beowulf is a badass.” In order to bring some measure of coherence, Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary had written a script for Beowulf in 1997 that highlighted some of the silliness of the poem, which comes off a bit as a really long Bill Brasky sketch.

When the script failed to be produced, Avary gave it to Robert Zemeckis, then in the midst of the “CGI nightmare” phase of his career, a period that gave us the textbook example of the Uncanny Valley, The Polar Express. Zemeckis was keen to use motion-capture animation for this film as well, planned to make it a 3D film, and had the script extensively re-written to suit an unlimited budget. The result is about what you’d expect.

In 6th century Denmark, the merrymaking of old King Hrothgar (Anthony Hopkins) is disturbed by a demonic abomination named Grendel (Crispin Glover). Hrothgar sends out a call to any champion who can kill Grendel, and from across the sea, the legendary hero Beowulf (Ray Winstone) answers, and quickly gets the job done. Grendel’s death causes Beowulf to run afoul of the water demon that birthed him (Angelina Jolie). Intending to kill her, Beowulf instead lets her live and fathers another child with her in exchange for the promise that he will be the next King of Denmark, which promptly happens.

Decades later, Beowulf’s demon-child returns to Denmark, terrorizing the kingdom in the form of a fire-breathing dragon. Beowulf ultimately defeats the dragon, but is killed in the process, and subsequently remembered for all time.

There’s a lot more to this than I’m willing to get into, as the film makes a big deal of the abandonment of the Norse Gods in favor of Christianity (200 years too soon), and there’s a lot of random sexy times– the compromised version of the script is not great. But the movie’s structural problems are nothing compared to its hideous visuals. Just like The Polar Express, all of the characters (closely resembling the actors who voice them) look like dead-eyed zombies. Aside from human figures, everything moves too flowingly. The action is weightless and hollow. The nudity is offputting and out of place (and considering Angelina Jolie’s involvement, a wasted opportunity). And that’s to say nothing of the horrible, piercing noises that pervade the film.

When one considers what Hollywood can do in terms of effects, there’s no reason for this to be CGI other than Zemeckis’ insistence that he could be the man to bring back 3D– which he didn’t; James Cameron did. The final result is a nauseating assault on the senses and the mind, less Beowulf than God of War, with all that implies.

How Did It Do?
A non-technical flop, Beowulf grossed $193.4 against a $150 million budget. Despite a surprisingly positive response from critics (71% on RottenTomatoes) the lack of return on investment led Zemeckis to give up his mo-cap dreams after the completion of his version of A Christmas Carol, which was already in the works at this time.

Next Time: Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium

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