Over the past decade, the film industry's never-ending search for bankable story ideas has yielded movies based on comic books, television shows, videogames and even toys. Now it appears that we're on the verge on a much more unsettling trend: movies based on homework assignments. Beowulf, the interminably long Old English epic poem and the bane of my ninth grade English Lit existence, has gotten the Hollywood blockbuster treatment, courtesy of director Robert Zemeckis (Forrest Gump, The Polar Express) and his team of visual effects wizards. Aided by a script that amps up the action, sex, blood and gore while still somehow remaining in the lucrative realm of PG-13, this shiny new Beowulf has taken the age-old tale of the monster Grendel and his mom and turned it into the coolest-looking videogame I have ever seen.
While the core of Beowulf's story stays essentially true to the source material (Grendel terrorizes the Danish village of Heorot, geat Beowulf kills Grendel, Grendel's mom gets pissed, Beowulf battles Grendel's mom, etc.), screenwriters Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary have added several intriguing new layers. Heorot is a now a den of Viking debauchery, Beowulf's (Ray Winstone) a cocky badass with a six-pack, monstrous Grendel (Crispin Glover) is given motivation and his mother (Angelina Jolie) looks like Angelina Jolie.
The most dramatic new dimension added to Zemeckis' Beowulf, however, is the film's visual aesthetic. Utilizing a complex "digital performance capture" process that involves shooting real actors in live scenes and then "painting" over them with CGI, Zemeckis has created a new look that can be best described as existing somewhere in the vicinity of live action, videogames and the latest Shrek flick. The action at times is genuinely dazzling, especially during the climactic fight scene between Beowulf and Grendel's mother, but I worry that folks who see it on regular 2-D screens (as opposed to critics like me who got to see it in full 3-D on a massive Imax screen) will miss out on the most appealing aspect of the movie. Without the 3-D, Beowulf is really little more than a so-so Pixar flick: riveting in spurts, but ultimately soulless.
Zemeckis has stated that the primary goal of his approach to Beowulf was to create a heightened look that still preserved the best aspects of the actors' performances, but the result actually achieves the opposite effect, stripping them of all nuance and subtlety. It prompts one to wonder why heavyweights like Jolie, Malkovich and Sir Anthony Hopkins would sign on to a project that essentially marginalizes them. Equally perplexing is why the producers went to the expense of getting so many big names when they could have pulled a 300, used a cast of no-names and saved a ton of dough. Or, better yet, why didn't they just skip the theatrical part entirely and release Beowulf as a game for the Xbox 360? Because, ultimately, that's where it probably belongs.