On the one hand, Anthony Hopkins, Angelina Jolie, monsters, heroes, and the possibility of IMAX 3D.
On the other, "Hwæt! We gardena in geardagum," Freshman English class, Angles, Saxons, and Jutes.
Have you felt conflicted about Beowulf? Yeah, it looks cool, but is it just the equivalent of your college English teacher trying unsuccessfully to use the young kids' slang? Of "getting jiggy" with commas? Of "raising the roof" for Chaucer's skillful use of narration in Troilus and Criseyde?
Let me calm your fears. This movie rox. Yes, if you're not paying attention, it might educate you ever-so-slightly about Anglo-Saxon culture, but you can guard against that if necessary. Just cross your eyes every time Unferth mentions that new God Jesus, or when Crispin Glover as Grendel speaks Old English, and you'll still emerge with your ignorance pristine. And you'll have seen a kick-ass film.
We went to see Beowulf in IMAX 3D, which is the way to do it if you have any kind of choice. Most of the 3D I've seen in my life has either been A) a one-minute segment in an otherwise 2D film or B) lame-ass cute-itude à la The Polar Express. Here, 3D reaches its fire-breathing dragon possibilities, as monsters and mayhem land in your lap. The whole film is 3D. Drive for an hour, hell two hours, if you must. But go see it in IMAX 3D if you can. It's amazing. Best thing since sliced bread. No, best thing since sliced, toasted bread with butter on it.
It's a wild, rollicking, fun epic with cool monsters, interesting (and sexy!) heroes, a bit of romance, and, yes, some literary and filmic value. I'm going to go ahead and reveal myself here. I am, as a matter of fact, a college English teacher. I admit it, though I don't believe I've ever used the word "jiggy" unironically. But I was hoping that this version of Beowulf would retain some of the power and vision of the original text, that it wouldn't just rewrite the story as a swords and barbarians smackdown complete with a voiceover from the Gubernator.
I figured, in advance, that this was a lost hope, but I'm not totally averse to the occasional swords and barbarians smackdown, so I figured it would probably be fun even if Grendel started speaking Arabic and Angelina Jolie did a sexy dance of seven veils in the middle of Heorot. But this version retains much of the original.
It keeps the characters, with Unferth the annoying, Beowulf's bud Wiglaf, and the ineffectual Hrothgar. It keeps the important thematic elements, with the growing influence of Christianity and with the focus on the questionable relevance of a heroic, brawny man of deeds within an increasingly spiritual, internally focused world. It even keeps Hrunting, the sword that sucks.
And though it plays a little fast and loose with the plot, it solves some important problems in doing so. The Beowulf text has three sections focused around three monsters -- Grendel, Grendel's mother, and a dragon. The dragon section occurs when King Beowulf is much advanced in years, and it thus can seem like a mere addendum, something not clearly related to the two previous sections. Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary's script solves the problem by relating all of these fights, making them each one battle in a larger war.
[SPOILER] Though this isn't faithful to the original poem, it works very well in that making Grendel's mother the deus ex machina of Heorot's kingship and the mistress of both Hrothgar and Beowulf allows Gaiman and Avary to further emphasize the transition that's occurring in Anglo-Saxon culture at this time. The sin of Hrothgar and Beowulf (their tasting of the forbidden fruit of Grendel's mother's demon flesh) lives on in a tangible shame that they cannot expiate. If they sin by having sex with the ever-delicious evil demon Angelina Jolie, then they can only live with that sin perpetually, forced to pay again and again through the actions of their demonspawn sons.
Only with Beowulf's passing (the passing of the era of heroes) and the rise of the age of Christianity can shame and sin find other possibilities for release. Beowulf (and the age of heroes and monsters that he represents) must be sacrificed for humankind to find another, less literal, way for humans to deal with, and expiate, sin and shame. Christians can repent and be forgiven; Beowulf has no such luxury.
That's not to say that this film presents Christianity as a universal blessing. Rather, it's the death knell for an era of bravery and deeds and a transition to something completely different. But anyways, this gives Angelina Jolie more screen time, which hopefully gives Neil Gaiman more money. So it's all good. [END SPOILER]
OK, off my soapbox. Another tidbit for any Beowulf nerds out there. Yes, Grendel and Grendel's mother speak Old English a couple times during the film. Their pronunciation is pretty subpar. Dialect coach Roisin Carty (who brought you such films as Rome, Troy, and Lord of the Rings) apparently thinks sticking an archaic sounding accent on the words is good enough when it comes to Old English pronunciation. Thus the OE sounds like ass. But it's there, which I was surprised and happy about.
I have a couple caveats for fans as well. In the interest of parallelism, both Grendel and the dragon are given physical weaknesses that make them vulnerable to Beowulf's strength and prowess. Without saying anything too specific, Grendel's hearing is the source of both his pain and his power, and it is when Beowulf manipulates Grendel's hearing that the monster is subdued. This isn't in the original. Similarly, as noted above, the film does things with Grendel's mother that are definitely not in the original, though those choices make a certain sense, as I described above.
The film adds a certain slapstick sense of humor that definitely wasn't in the poem. When Beowulf fights Grendel, he decides to do so naked, so that he and the monster will be on equal footing. The movie then turns into an odd mix of Austin Powers and Conan as Beowulf battles Grendel in the buff, and everything from candlesticks to swords and warrior's helms provide virtual loincloths for our comely hero. Nary a bit is flashed, but the film plays tantalizingly (and hilariously) with the possibilities. Thus, while it's a film in love with male anatomy -- like 300 -- it makes itself much less seriously than that film, which made it -- for me -- more fun.
As far as acting, the film's impressive. Anthony Hopkins as Hrothgar manages to mix the dignified elder statesman with a washed up, pathetic drunk rather effectively. John Malkovich plays a bitchy buzzkill as well as he ever has as he slinks through the role of Unferth.
Angelina Jolie won't be earning any Oscars, but she manages the job of smarmy sex goddess as well as anyone could. Ray Winstone, as Beowulf, brings gravitas and sexiness to the barbaric hero. All together, everyone does a solid, even superlative, job.
The digital animation, in which the actors' actual expressions and movements are rendered digitally, is beautifully done. It's a bit of a surreal experience, which is surely what Zemeckis intended. They're calling this "motion capture" animation. Whatever you call it, it's pretty trippy -- especially in 3D. The technology isn't perfect yet; some of the animation of emotion and faces left a bit to be desired, but overall it was well done and the best of the motion capture animation movies I've seen.
Altogether, this film did all the things I hoped it would, and it even accomplished some things that I thought were highly unlikely in a big budget Hollywood flick. If it's occasionally imperfect, with badly accented Old English and imperfectly animated emotions, it's overall an impressive achievement and well worth your $15.
You! Back there in the corner! Stop nerking your antelope and get with the jiggy program, you psychotic hose beast!
Go see Beowulf. You'll get mad props for being a playa.