Visually stunning "Beowulf" fails to charm

Nov. 19, 2007, midnight | By Monica Wei | 14 years, 9 months ago

Technology cannot outweigh dull plot and boring characters

The oldest and greatest English epic tale comes to life with the newest cutting edge technology in "Beowulf." Director Robert Zemecki combines 3D imaging with motion capture technology (improved since the creepy people of Zemecki's "Polar Express) to create the beautiful world of Beowulf. Unfortunately, even these amazing visuals cannot rescue the film from a predictable plot and lackluster characters.

"Beowulf" follows the adventures of its namesake (played by Ray Winstone), who saves a Danish kingdom from the monster Grendel (Crispin Clover) and battles Grendel's mother (Angelina Jolie) when she comes to seek retribution. Later in his life, a graying and much older King Beowulf battles a dragon, saving his kingdom from destruction.

Perhaps the epic of Beowulf is so timeless and classic that elements of its plot have been overused and become clichéd. Whatever the reason, "Beowulf" is painfully predictable. Back when the great tale was first told, plot devices probably didn't matter, just action scenes. Scriptwriters Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary have added a dysfunctional family twist that makes more sense than the disjointed original but is still uninteresting. The movie seems to follow a template for fantasy movies: hero triumphs, hero's past comes back to bite him, hero triumphs over past.

While the story's grand scheme of is dry, the subplots that could have spiced up the film are, if possible, even blander. The attempts at romance in "Beowulf" are ineffective and boring. Watching Beowulf make eyes at the queen of the kingdom he saves from Grendel is nauseating and does absolutely nothing for the movie except mark Beowulf as a dislikable character.

The not-quite blatant nudity in the movie adds nothing and is dreadful besides. Beowulf has a disturbing habit of completely undressing and showing off his toned body and comupter-generated image (CGI) six-pack. He fights Grendel in the nude, with an assortment of debris conveniently obscuring his crotch area. This technique was amusing in "The Simpsons Movie," but is quite simply extraneous here. Jolie's appearance in the movie also leaves very little to the imagination (especially enhanced in the 3D version of the movie), but is only slightly more appropriate, as she is a water demon who manages to seduce all who seek to destroy her.

For "Beowulf," the film technique of motion capture is essentially a double-edged sword. The characters' movements are fluid and lack the essence of true human locomotion. Beowulf's inhuman agility, shown in his lithe aerobics during his fight with Grendel, is awe-inspiring but becomes uninteresting after ten minutes of flips and jumps – his movements are too perfect and the feats too easy.

The technology also lacks the ability to successfully portray human emotion because of its inability to truly capture the actors' eyes. The technical details of grime, skin and hair are impeccable, but the dead eyes and unnatural movement result in alien people whose emotions do not register.

While the decision to create the film almost entirely in CGI may have fallen short with the human elements of the movie, the CGI creates a beautiful and breathtaking interpretation of the Dark Ages in which Beowulf lived. The landscapes are especially notable, with dozens of tracking shots where grass, snow and smoke slide past the edges of the screen, creating a stunning effect in 3D.

The monsters created with this technology are similarly exceptional. Grendel is delightfully disgusting – a grotesque, skinless corpse that oozes pus from crevices on his body. The golden dragon, however, is easily the best element of "Beowulf." He is beautifully created, from the texture of his scales to the movement of his wings, and absolutely dazzling in 3D. The scenes of battle between the dragon and Beowulf are also brilliantly executed, complete with awe-inspiring aerial views and bright dragon fire.

Unfortunately, the truly interesting scenes come too late in the movie. The only magic of "Beowulf" derives from the wondrous landscape and the majestic dragon, which are not enough to rescue the movie from its lifeless CGI people and trite plot.

"Beowulf" is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence including disturbing images, some sexual material and nudity. It is now playing in regular 35mm film in theaters everywhere, and in digital 3D in select theaters.

Monica Wei. Monica is an unfortunate piece of fruit that has been suspended in a gelatin cup. Okay, not really, but sometimes she feels like one. Monica the strawberry chunk enjoys reading, sitting in trees and watching the clouds go by. She thinks that anything tastes good … More »

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