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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Stardust (2007)

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Stardust
Dir. Matthew Vaughn
Premiered July 29, 2007

For most of these reviews, I include a sub-section called “Sign this was made in 2007.” With Stardust, that’s difficult. You can tell this movie was made in 2007 because it exists.

The Lord of the Rings is the last big blockbuster that changed everything. Going against his better judgment, New Line Cinema exec Marc Ordesky allowed Peter Jackson to make the entire trilogy at once, and by succeeding, gave us the instant franchise. More importantly, it brought Hollywood out of a late ‘90s dark age that 9/11 had prematurely killed, and fostered an unprecedented reliance on adaptations of recognizable properties. At the time, it was even thought that Jackson’s films had finally opened the doors for high fantasy as a popular genre.

But the last of those promises turned out not to be true, and by 2007, the last high fantasy epics were making little impression on the silver screen. The most well-received of these was Matthew Vaughn’s Stardust.

Somewhere in rural 19th Century England, an ancient Roman rampart is revealed to be a portal into the magical kingdom of Stormhold. After losing his job, young Tristan Thorn (Charlie Cox) discovers that his mother lives in this mysterious land, and vows to recover the remnant of a falling star that landed there so he can bring it back and win the favor of his materialistic crush Victoria (Sienna Miller).

Tristan’s intentions turn out to be more fraught and more fortuitous than he could have imagined. Not only do fallen stars take corporeal form in Stormhold (in this case Yvaine, played by Claire Danes), but they are also much beloved by witches (led by Michelle Pfeiffer) for the ability to restore youth, beauty and power. Stormhold is also a fratricidal dictatorship in the midst of a succession crisis, with Yvaine in possession of a jewel that bestows kingship.

…And that’s just the first act. The plot of Stardust, while comprehensible, is so devilishly complicated that reading any further plot description would either bore the reader or reveal far too much. While I wasn’t in love with this film, I did enjoy the hell out of it, and caught myself on the edge of my seat several times. While the basic plot has more than a little of the classic hero’s journey in it, the rest is as original as anything I’ve seen in this genre.

Most notably, Stardust is a fairy tale. A new fairy tale. And an unapologetic one. In an era that bemoans fairy tales as the bane of all modernity that will return us to the Dark Ages (despite the fact that civilization never abandoned fairy tales and yet still exists), Stardust makes no excuses, never takes refuge in detached cynicism, and tells its own story rather than subverting old ones. I realize that it’s based on a book, but the book was only written in 1999. That is a rare thing, and while I’m probably not going to revisit Stardust anytime soon, I’m glad that this was our coda to Hollywood’s latest wave of high fantasy.

At least I wish it was. The actual genre-killer came later in 2007. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

Additional Notes

  • One thing I should mention: Robert DeNiro as a flamingly gay, Anglophilic sky-pirate. Worth seeing just for the what-the-fuckness of it.
  • Another thing: while some characters are iffy about black magic, the film treats its use as perfectly fine. That’s different.

How Did It Do?
Despite a unprecedentedly enthusiastic reception from test audiences, Stardust grossed $135.6 million against a $70 million budget, narrowly failing to make up marketing costs and earning an unusually poor $38 million in the United States– compare to its native United Kingdom, where it earned $31 million despite a much smaller population.

Nevertheless, critics were mostly positive, earning the film a 76% fresh rating on RottenTomatoes, and it really is impressive that this movie isn’t a complete disaster with all its wild shifts in tone and genre.

In his otherwise positive review, David Edelstein dickishly insisted on referring to director Matthew Vaughn only as “Madonna’s husband’s best man,” which is pretty fucking rich: Vaughn had already broken out three years earlier with Layer Cake, while his creative partner Guy Ritchie, the “Madonna’s husband” in question, was leaping straight into the late Bush era’s special brand of cinematic pretension with the gentile-bastardized-Kabbalah-manifesto-crime-thriller Revolver. Ritchie went on to direct two successful but instantly-forgotten Sherlock Holmes movies and failed to create an exceptionally grubby King Arthur cinematic universe, while Vaughn did Kick-Ass, X-Men: First Class, and Kingsman. Advantage Vaughn.

Next Time: Rush Hour 3