Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Movies: Beowulf

I really had almost zero expectations when I walked into the I-Max 3-D spectacular that is this movie (miraculously, I hadn't seen the trailer, and was only there for Angelina Jolie, of whom I'm not even that fond anymore (she jumped the shark long ago), excepting that I had read the book Beowulf in seventh grade. That was long ago enough that, when the movie ended, I had to check with my movie-going pals to be sure that they did alter the plot (which seemed longer and more complicated than I had remembered). Indeed, they did (and to little affect, I think), but I will discuss that in a bit. The point I want to make now is that I walked into this movie having seen only a poster or two, and therefore expecting it to be a live-action film, not a computer-animated one.

On the topic of technology, I don't want to give the impression that I am poo-pooing the technical advances of the past few years, or imply that I'm not impressed that an I-Max 3-D movie even exists. Because that, in and of itself, is quite amazing. However, being a member of my generation, of course I am very difficult to satisfy, and I have long list of complaints about the visual aspects of this film. First and foremost, watching it felt like being in a video game. I'm not certain that would register as a negative comment to the creators and the fans, but that's because I'm not the target market. I don't play video games, and I don't really want my movie-going experience to feel like a gaming experience. Perhaps I am old fashioned, but I do think that I prefer my movies flat. Specifically, the shots in which the camera pulled back in space, while trees whizzed up from behind us felt particularly awkward, because one doesn't ever run (fly?) backward at such a speed. Additionally, I disliked certain textural elements (Beowulf's skin, in particular, was too buffed and gleaming; it appeared plasticized) and types of character motion (the Queen in particular (as well as old Beowulf's young mistress) moved in a bobble-headed kind of way that I found particular noisome.)

Back to the topic of plot, and including a discussion on casting/artistic direction, I am disappointed in the temptation twist the writers included in the plot, and the casting of a temptress (Angelina Jolie, of course) as Grendel's mother. Again, it's been more than ten years since I read this book, but the plot then was simple: there is a monster named Grendel that is horrifying to behold; there is a coward called Unferth who has a boil on his neck which he picks, and who wets his pants in fear when he sees the monster Grendel. There is hero called Beowulf who comes and kills Grendel, and who then must kill Grendel's mother, an even more horrible monster. Then, the story is over. I agree that there isn't much meat there for feature-length film, but if the goal of the feature-length film is to show gore and combat, then the film doesn't require a very generous plot arc anyway. The writers, however, decided to add in some "babes" (really, the women in the film aren't anything more than that, not even getting equal technical attention to their features and movement), as well as a plot twist that darkens Beowulf from hero into fallen hero. The updated plot progresses thusly: Beowulf comes to kill Grendel who, for some reason, is the "shame" of the king. After Grendel is dead, Beowulf must go to kill Grendel's mother, but because Grendel's mother is the enchanting Angelina Jolie, covered in gold latex, with built-in high heels growing from her feet (kind of gross) and a Rapunzel-length braid that has its own prehensile, tentacle-like abilities, Beowulf succumbs to her temptation: if he lies with her and gives her a new child, she will make him king. After he does the deed, he returns to court and lies about having killed her; the king sees the reflection of his own youthful folly in Beowulf and commits suicide after pronouncing Beowulf heir to his throne. Beowulf inherits the lovely (and tedious) Queen, and no one knows what he's done until years later, when he is gray and wrinkled, and a fire-breathing dragon (his own son by Grendel's mother) comes to attack his kingdom. He kills the dragon, and dies whilst doing it (therefore before he can kill Grendel's mother). At the film's end, the possibility for the continuance of the cycle is reopened when Grendel's mother approaches Beowulf's dearest friend, the next in line to be king.

These additions theoretically give the film more philosophical depth (power, lust, and greed are inconquerable, and always ultimately lead to evil and destruction), but the tone of the film desensitizes the audience from any potential philosophical ruminations. Angelina Jolie, ultimately, was a poor choice of representative for Grendel's mother (though sell tickets, she did), as was Crispin Glover a poor choice of representative for Grendel (whom I always pictured as being fat, blobby, and slimy, rather than emaciated and dessicated). Mostly, I am disappointed that Unferth didn't even have a visible boil, much less one that he picked, as that has been the most memorable image from the book, clinging to me for nearly 15 years now.

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