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I’m really, really sorry I missed seeing Beowulf in the theater. I don’t give Robert Zemeckis enough credit. This is the guy who made Romancing The Stone and Back To the Future. He directed Forrest Gump and Cast Away, two of the most effective mainstream films of all time. But before we start giving him a free pass, he also directed Contact and What Lies Beneath, and is credited as producer on more turkeys than I care to name off, so a certain amount of skepticism is justified.
I rest my case.
But holy mackerel if Beowulf isn’t a jaw-dropper. On a technical level, this is an extension of Zemeckis’ experiment in motion capture he first explored on Polar Express – another picture I figured I’d skip (but may now put on my Netflix). This motion capture stuff is ridiculous. The actors put on spandex suits, attach a bunch of sensors all over their body, and then proceed to act in a room that is basically a skeleton of an actual set. It is really interesting, and sufficiently explored on a Making Of featurette.
On another one of the bonus features Production Designer Doug Chiang walks viewers through the model sets built to give the actors a sense of the space they are supposed to be acting in, and many paintings are presented showing just how close the final picture is to these photorealistic images. The whole movie really feels like a moving painting.
The scenes that call for monsters and fights and the recreation of mythological creatures are excellent beyond words. Zemeckis is able to create wholly fantastical playgrounds where the mind has free reign. But then again, Peter Jackson achieves much of the same in the Lord Of The Rings trilogy, yet keeps it – mostly – live action. Where does the difference lie? It’s hard to say. I guess The Lord Of The Rings “feels” more “real”, but I really appreciated and enjoyed the absolute departure from reality Beowulf seems to bask in and exploit.
Your skin has never looked better. I want CGI!!
It is no accident that the screenwriters are graphic novel legend Neil Gaiman, and Rules of Attraction director Roger Avary. Both of these guys are highly visual storytellers, with narrative tendencies that lend themselves to the pulpy and fantastical. In another of the DVD’s bonus features, the two discuss the history of the Beowulf story, and how they took some liberties in their adaptation, liberties that ultimately help Zemeckis’ vision.
What I found most admirable in Beowulf was the melodramatic tone Zemeckis unflinchingly taps into. While watching Beowulf I found I could not stop thinking about the films of Douglas Sirk (Written On The Wind, All That Heaven Allows, etc). In the films of Sirk, the sets and colors and costumes and lighting and performance were all pitched at such an exceedingly melodramatic level they ended up existing just a few steps beyond reality, and it is this quality that makes Sirk’s films timeless.
Zemeckis achieves the same thing in Beowulf, using motion capture the way Sirk used set and costume design. Time will tell whether or not the animation will endure, but as far as today’s standards go, Zemeckis has delivered a picture that should endure. Where films like Gladiator, and even the Lord Of The Rings trilogy, ultimately suffer and become daunting for trying too hard to be like real life, Beowulf succeeds precisely because it tosses real life out the window and embraces the artifice unflinchingly.