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Nov. 20, 2007

"Beowulf": not the usual epic tale

by Emily Hsiao, Online Managing Editor
Mix together an epic tale, some intense actors, amazing computer graphics and you've got yourself an amazingly gruesome movie with some unexpectedly deep underlying themes. While "Beowulf's" plot appears to be lacking, the movie's amazing details makes up for that and more.

When King Hrothgar (Anthony Hopkins) holds a celebration in his mead hall, the monster Grendel (Crispin Glover), 15 feet tall with rotting flesh, an overbite and an unbearable howl, can't take the merrymaking. He effectively shuts down the party by killing off a few men and wrecking the hall before running away. Then along comes Beowulf (Ray Winstone), the six-packed hero, to slay the monster and save Hrothgar's kingdom as well as his own reputation. Of course, Beowulf insists on a fair fight so he manages to kill Grendel in the nude. But Beowulf's problems are not over. Now, he has to face Grendel's mother (Angelina Jolie), seductive, sleek and altogether too irresistible for Beowulf to refuse. It then takes Beowulf 50 years to learn to face his past and atone for his mistakes.

The storyline is shallow and hackneyed. Beowulf fights a monster, has complications with the monster's mom and finally learns his lesson and redeems himself. Most of the plot is pretty predictable and simple to the point that it feels as if something is missing. Screenwriters Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary could probably have helped by giving the characters more interesting dialogue. The excitement and suspense of Beowulf's arrival is smothered by the introduction of, "I am Beowulf. I am here to kill your monster."

But what the movie lacks in plot, it makes up for in the screenplay's subtler themes. Beneath all the violence and nudity that pushes the PG-13 rating, Gaiman and Avary play with the idea of a hero being its own worst enemy. Ultimately, pride becomes the hero's downfall, not the monsters. Grendel's mother is more than just a sexy sea creature. She is all the temptations that a hero must face: lust, fame, glory and riches.

The computer-aided details in this movie alone are an amazing feat. From the snow that sparkles and glints down to the sinews, spurting blood and the breathtaking views, director Robert Zemeckis covers it all. Just as in the "Polar Express," Zemeckis uses the "motion capture" technique to combine the actors' actions with digital imagery and create an animated film with sensational scenery and some hardcore fighting scenes. The technology allows Zemeckis to display scenes with angles impossible with a normal camera. Put on a pair of 3D glasses and watch blood come spurting straight at your face as the camera follows Beowulf sliding down a sea monster's neck with a sword.

However, the drawback to this new technology is a major one: no emotional connection to the audience. The characters lack the vibrancy that makes real acting so admirable and attractive. Instead, they remind viewers of video game characters with the swaying bodies and a boring uniform blandness of the face. While Jolie does a good job purring in an enticing voice and stealthily stealing around her cave, her expressions aren't evident. Even Winstone's invincibility, bravado and indecision during his fighting scenes is lost without his facial expressions. Nothing can make up for the emotions that have been lost through technology. No more transitions between facial expressions, no more suggestive gestures such as a slight raise of the eyebrow or an unconscious gulp and no more life. This filming technique leaves the viewers amazed with the epic graphical feast, but unable to relate to the lifeless characters.

Regardless of the missing expressions and shallow plot, the graphics alone make the movie worthwhile, even if it means wearing slippery 3D glasses for two whole hours. "Beowulf" provides just the right kind of entertainment for viewers who have a liking for extreme violence and strong stomachs.

"Beowulf" (113 minutes) is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence including disturbing images, some sexual material and nudity. It is now playing in all theaters.



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