Computer-generated RealD is not enough to rescue this epic


From the advent of sound with 1927’s The Jazz Singer to the computer-generated effects breakthrough of 1989’s The Abyss – advancements in technology have had a major impact on cinematic storytelling, for better and worse. New technologies open up more cinematic experiences and new avenues for directors and actors to explore their craft. But it’s easy to get caught up in the razzmatazz of the latest spectacle, instead of focusing on age-old, tried and true thematic substance. And that’s exactly Beowulf’s tragic flaw.

The Beowulf legend originates from a 700 A.D. oral tradition that was adapted in epic poem form by the English and into film form by director Robert Zemeckis – using motion-captured live-action performances that are turned into a computer-generated light show. Much like the IMAX 3D screenings of Zemeckis’ previous effort, The Polar Express, Beowulf’s tale of a hero who comes to rid a Scandinavian village of its monster, while screaming his name every chance he gets, is more a showcase for RealD technology than an engaging film.

RealD isn’t the type of 3-D show that revolves around cheap dimensional gags. Instead, it adds a tremendous amount of depth to the rounded computer-generated world. Although much of the film still looks and feels like the cut scenes of an extremely well-made video game, the added dimensional depth of RealD helps the computer animation feel more natural. There is an inherent false third dimension in computer animation and this presentation allows the characters to breathe and act more naturally. It also provides a distraction when the film falters, which it does after the “wow” effect wears off.

Instead of taking the epic poem at face value, Zemeckis and scripters Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary take liberties and explore Beowulf as a man, not the infallible hero of the epic poem. The problem isn’t that the new themes of Beowulf’s vanity, which leads him down a path of regret, and the development of Christianity aren’t interesting. It’s more a matter of poor execution. Aside from the awful mix of contemporary and rudimentary dialogue (and innuendo), Zemeckis seems more concerned getting in copious RealD butt shots of computer-generated characters than letting his themes develop. Most of the nudity is pointless, and when you watch it in RealD, it’s the equivalent of looking at naked drawings in elementary school. Whether it’s the heaving cleavage of a wench scrubbing down a table or a naked Angelina Jolie (playing Grendel’s – the monster – mother) stroking Beowulf’s sword as it melts into a silver secretion, Zemeckis tends to dwell on these scenes far too long and steep them in just enough eroticism to creep you out.

The uneasy emotion continues through the anti-Christian sentiment. Burning crosses and dismissal of “the Christ god” are commonplace in Beowulf. While these motifs wouldn’t necessarily be a problem, the film sets no precedent for their presence. Lines like “the Christ god killed heroes,” come out of nowhere and play out as unfounded jabs rather than the development of a thematic argument. If Zemeckis was serious about tackling the religious themes, he would have had to use the subtext to comment on how the original oral tradition was adapted into written form by Christians, who presumably inserted Christian themes into it – not to take potshots at a religion.

There are always growing pains when new technology enters the cinematic arena. Although Beowulf makes an exciting showcase for RealD, it runs about 45 minutes too long as a film; Zemeckis becomes too enamored with the RealD glory shots and leaves his themes to become as muddled as watching a RealD presentation without the glasses on.

There is a future in substantive RealD presentations, but it’s going to take some time for the cinematic artists to figure out how to use it, without exploiting the spectacle.

Note: the film is also being shown as standard 35mm, which would only remove the “wow” aspect of RealD, while leaving the uneven themes and computer-generated rear ends intact.