Beowulf

Beowulf was made to show off technology, and I’m convinced that this was the sole reason for its creation. There have already been enough adaptations of the epic poem, but none have them have been done quite like this; after all, the technology to do this has only been around for a handful of years. Or at least, has only been used that long, to varying results.

What happens in Beowulf is something that director Robert Zemeckis has done once before. In The Polar Express, he took real actors and replaced them with CGI counterparts. Oh, the actors still acted, but they were motion captured and then put into a CGI environment. This is the same thing that happens here, although in the 3 years between films, we can already see significant improvement in the technology. The human characters look more realistic in Beowulf, which is a good thing, because in The Polar Express, they looked a little bit creepy.

Unfortunately, the animations haven’t really improved all that much. The way the characters move don’t ever feel all that realistic, especially in this film, largely because of the lead. Ray Winstone was cast in the lead role as our titular character, (as he reminds us frequently with his signature line “I am Beowulf!”), but he looks nothing like what we see on-screen. But he still moves like he’s 50 years old, even if Beowulf is supposed to be an action hero. Combining this with the fact that motion capture technology isn’t perfect yet, and the motions feel disjointed and sloppy.

The story is a loose adaptation of the Old English poem of the same name. There’s a monster that goes by the name of Grendel that is terrorizing part of Denmark. Our hero, Beowulf (Winstone), and a small group of soldiers come to the aid of King Hrothgar (Anthony Hopkins), to slay the monster. Other things happen once he arrives, but that’s how the basic story sets up. It’s a simple story and it’s not told poorly, but it gets upstaged by the motion capture technology used to present it.

With a film like this though, I don’t quite understand the purpose of having it all in CGI. Okay, so you can have whatever camera angles you want, and the CGI monsters don’t have to look as good because they’ll fit in better with the environment, but apart from those two things, it seems pointless. You have real actors actually doing a lot of the things you see in the movie, spending the time to memorize their lines and act them out like they were in a live-action film. Then, you take that hard work, and make it seem like all they’re doing is voicing their characters. All the while, you’re spending more money than you would have if it was all done in live-action.

To me, this seems like a waste. Other fantasy movies have been created for far less money and with better results than here. I’m not sure if it would have been a great film if it had been live-action, but it definitely would have been improved. The motion capture technology has certainly improved, but it’s still not perfect. And in something like this, you need it to be very close to perfect. Otherwise, it looks like a video game cutscene. A video game cutscene from last generation. (Think God of War 2 — good looking, but not absolutely breathtaking.) And it’s easier to render the actors in 3D during post-production, (or would that be during production in a film like this?), which means the 3D version actually comes out looking good.

But let’s forget about the visuals for a moment, because I feel like I’ve gone on about them for long enough. Let’s talk about how the action scenes function. They’re, well, functional. They work, and they’re “shot” well, because with the computer-rendered film, you can move the camera wherever you please, and they’re mildly entertaining. But there are too few of them and they’re nothing special. They’re also very gory, which leaves me surprised that the film could receive a PG-13 rating. I’ve seen this film twice now, both unrated and theatrical, and either way, it probably should have garnered an R rating. If you decide to watch this film, it doesn’t really matter which version either, because there are no significant differences between the two. The unrated version just has more gore and more “suggestive” material, mostly in the form of adianoetas coming from the characters.

There’s nothing in Beowulf that you haven’t seen before if you overlook its visuals. That’s all it has going for it, and really the only reason to seek it out. Or maybe you’ll enjoy laughing at how poor the dialogue is or how shallow the characters are. I got a few unintentional laughs from that, and if you pay attention, which is sometimes difficult, maybe you’ll get some laughs too.

Beowulf is a film that exists so that it can show how far we’ve come in motion capture technology. It’s like a tech demo that has a plot, and in that regard, it succeeds in showing us that we still have a long way to go. So thanks, Beowulf, for allowing me to know that motion capture technology isn’t perfect, but needs to be close in order to not be a distracting gimmick. The rest of the film seems to have been an after-thought, and while there’s not much wrong with it, there’s nothing special or worthy of your time either.

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