Editor’s Note: Beowulf Surprises

There’s a reason why the Beowulf tale has endured for centuries and is taught in virtually every high school. It’s hard to mess up a great story, but there were doubts about director Robert Zemeckis’ feature film adaptation involving realistic CG human characters. I was admittedly among the doubters, until I saw it Saturday night at the Universal City IMAX. It’s a thoroughly engrossing and thrilling achievement, and everyone who worked on it should be very proud.

From the monster Grendel’s first attack on King Hrothgar’s mead hall, it’s clear that this is not The Polar Express. Beowulf is bloody, bawdy, cheeky, sexy and generally cool. The year is 518 A.D. and the title character has come to the Danish kingdom of Herot to rid it of its demon. Boastful, cocksure and overly macho, he comes off at first like a close cousin of the Gerard Butler character in 300, but eventually proves to be a deeply flawed hero more akin to the subjects of Greek tragedies. The screenplay by Neil Gaiman (Coraline, MirrorMask) and Roger Avery (Pulp Fiction) takes some liberties with the original tale and weaves a smart and tangled web that suggests that the epic poem passed down through the oral tradition was only half of the story.

Visually, the film is a feast for the eyes, especially in IMAX 3D. The detail in the computer-generated models is astonishing and the characters feel very real once you stop scrutinizing them and become absorbed in the story. The ‘uncanny valley’ hasn’t been completely bridged, but it is growing narrower. There is still some vacancy in the eyes at times, but that’s an issue that may never be resolved since the eyes are said to be the windows of the soul, and computer-generated people don’t have souls. Not yet, anyway.

I’ve often questioned the logic of going through the trouble of making realistic CG humans when you can simply photograph real actors, but it makes sense with this particular project because it’s important that the humans and the monsters look like they belong in the same world. Audiences have seen so much CG animation in live-action films now that even the best examples can come off feeling artificial next to actors and photographed environments. The creatures in Beowulf are not visual effects, but characters equally as real as their homosapien counterparts. And, yes, Angelina Jolie is one hot arrangement of pixels here. There’s plenty of bare Beowulf skin for the other set as well.

The movie was made using Sony Pictures Imageworks’ proprietary system of capturing actors’ performances and applying them to computer models. Zemeckis doesn’t consider the technique to be animation, but I doubt there’s a single frame in the film that wasn’t touched by an animator. It’s a shame the film probably won’t be qualified to compete for Best Animated Feature at this year’s Academy Awards because most people will see it as animation. On the other hand, it might not be fair to lump it in with films involving performances that are completely animator-driven. As it stands, Beowulf is in a category of its own and the Academy doesn’t know what to do with it. But it may be forced to come up with something, especially if it proves to be a major box-office hit.

Beowulf succeeds in delivering where most of the summer ‘event’ films have failed this year. It’s solid entertainment with a gripping story and complex characters that aren’t off-the-shelf clich’s. It’s not a perfect movie, and one that is sure to have its critics, but I think it’s one of the year’s biggest surprises and deserves to be seen by a lot of people. I’m sure it holds up in standard projection, but do yourself a favor and drive the extra distance to an IMAX theater and see it in 3D.