Beowulf (2007)

Computer generated imagery, or CGI, tends to get a bit of a bad rap. And it's not entirely undeserved, because when it's used badly, it can be very, very bad indeed. But when it's used well, you get something like Sin City, or Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, both of which used CGI to create a world totally unlike anything you could create with just sets and a camera. Beowulf takes things one step further.

The entirety of Beowulf has been created using computers. The A-list cast were filmed using motion capture techniques, then digitally rendered and inserted into a completely computer generated environment. The amount of effort that's gone into creating this movie is mindboggling. So it's a pity that it doesn't entirely work.

If you read Beowulf at school and can't really remember the details, or if you've never read the poem at all, it's probably not worth refreshing your memory. The first third of the movie, up until the battle with Grendel, more or less adheres to the poem's version of events, but beyond that, we're into unknown territory. Rather than playing Beowulf as a straightforward hero, he's instead a bit of a boaster, given to flights of fantasy and constantly exaggerating his own stories, much to the amusement of the men. And when Grendel's mother turns out not to be a monstrous old hag, but rather a gold-painted Angelina Jolie who promises him unlimited success and immortality, Beowulf's heroism fails him. And in the end, it's his own hubris that leads to his downfall - in the mould of the traditional tragic hero, really, his own vanity and obsession with building his legend ends up being his undoing.

That's all the plot you're getting, really. The film is built around three main set-pieces, each more stunningly rendered than the next - and if you're watching it in 3D at an IMAX cinema, you'll quickly have to get used to making your eyes really work for it. There's so much going on that it's difficult to take it all in, which is a shame because most of it looks great. There's a slight issue with the eyelines of many of the characters, which tends to make their faces look a bit squashed, or at least makes them seem slightly cross-eyed; although you can make out the pores in the characters' skin and see every individual hair in the men's beards, there's something still slightly off about them, something that undermines the illusion that you're watching real people. Not that that stops several of the actors looking like, well, themselves, though: Anthony Hopkins and Angelina Jolie, particularly, could almost, but not quite, really be there on screen.

The problem is mostly to do with the tone of the movie. It swings wildly between dark and serious (the massacre in the mead hall, for example) to wacky slapstick (Beowulf's naked battle with the monster) and though a lot of the jokes hit their mark, sometimes it's hard to be sure if you're supposed to be laughing or not. That kind of uncertainty permeates the movie - the animation makes it look almost like a children's film, though all the violence and nudity kind of negates that; the comedy undermines much of the epic nature of the story, but it's not played straight nor for laughs, really. Neil Gaiman commented that it was originally imagined as a low budget, Terry Gilliam-esque movie, and the script bears that out, except that the visual style doesn't really mesh with that sort of writing.

It's hard to decide what I thought of this movie. I can't decide if I like the changes that were made to the segment dealing with Grendel's mother, because it doesn't quite seem to make sense (what does she do for all those decades between seducing one king and the next, anyway?) and because it makes Beowulf into a very, very flawed man, rather than a hero. Some of the historically accurate touches are handled very nicely, only to be contradicted by an enormous anachronism in the next scene; considering this is essentially fantasy, that shouldn't matter, but somehow, the fact that some nods to reality were given makes it confusing. I can't persuade myself to like the rewrite of the final battle, and Beowulf's attitude to the women in his life, which matches the attitudes in the original text, somehow jars because the film is very obviously a modern (if not postmodern) take on the story.

That image of a naked Angelina Jolie emerging from the water dripping gold liquid kind of sums up the whole film. It's Angelina Jolie naked, except it isn't really. It's neither one thing or another, and something doesn't quite add up. Looks pretty, though.

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