November 20, 2007 -- “Beowulf,” the oldest story written in the English language, just got a new interpretation in a new movie using state-of-the-art technology. The new spin on the story is fascinating, providing new motivations for the story's key characters and a new way to tie the second and third acts together (which are separated by 50 years). This ancient story is being told using the latest motion capture techniques and the latest digital 3-D projection systems. The technology used in the film is both liberating and confining, but the evolution of motion capture and 3-D is far from over.
In this latest version of Beowulf (this is the third Beowulf feature film made in the last eight years) director Robert Zemeckis (“Forrest Gump,” “Cast Away”) has lined up some impressive acting talent to go with his new story and technology. Ray Winstone (“The Departed”) plays the title character. Thanks to motion capture and digital animation, the 5-10 pudgy actor is transformed into a 6-6 ripped Norse warrior. Similarly, Crispen Glover (“Willard”) is transformed in the 12 foot tall monster Grendel. The ImageMotion (TM) system reportedly made it fairly easy for the actors to finish their scenes quickly, despite the need for lycra suits, motion capture dots, face-painting to enable electroculography to capture facial expressions. The resulting images can virtually defy most physical restraints and take a lot of the risk out of stunts. The problem is, the facial expressions of the actors rendered by motion capture are still too limited. The facial recognition systems being pioneered by Image Metrics reportedly produces more lifelike images. I was unable to find out for sure if this method was used in “Beowulf,” but I think it was not, and it might well have improved on those wooden expressions.
The movie opens with king Hrothgar (played by Anthony Hopkins of “Fracture”) hosting a banquet to celebrate the opening of his new Meade Hall. The noise from this party arouses the wrath of the monster Grendel, who crashes the party and kills a lot of the guests. Hrothgar draws his sword and challenges the monster to a duel. The monster declines the challenge and leaves. The hero Beowulf arrives in the kingdom by boat with his fellow Thanes and boasts that he will kill the demon Grendel. He is labeled a braggart by a member of Hrothgar's court, Unferth, (John Malkovich of “Eragon”). Beowulf removes all his clothing and weapons since Grendel has none and Beowulf believes weapons are useless against a demon anyway. After a great battle, Beowulf tears an arm from Grendel, who later dies.
Grendel's mother, (Angelina Jolie of “A Mighty Heart”) kills most of Beowulf's men in revenge. Beowulf and his fellow warrior, Wiglaf (Brendan Gleeson of “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix”) go to face Grendel's mother in her remote cave. Beowulf emerges victorious from the monster's cave with the head of Grendel, but no proof that Grendel's mother is dead. He says that he killed her and everyone believes him. Hrothgar makes Beowulf the new king of his kingdom, and even the doubter, Unferth, is convinced that Beowulf is a hero. Beowulf himself, however, seems uneasy as king. He is plagued by doubts and doesn't sleep easy. Fifty years pass and a dragon appears to attack Beowulf's kingdom. Once again, the old king rides to deal with this new enemy with Wiglaf at his side. Beowulf, fearing he may soon die, tries to confide in Wiglaf about the truth of his confrontation with Grendel's mother, but Wiglaf refuses to hear it. He prefers the legend.
The original story of Beowulf does not explain why Grendel does not attack Hrothgar. It also doesn't explain why Beowulf provides no proof that Grendel's mother is dead. It also doesn't explain where the dragon came from and how it is connected to Beowulf, Hrothgar and Grendel. This new story explains all these things with some very interesting plot twists. This new version of the story ties Beowulf's fight with the dragon at the end of the movie directly to Hrothgar's confrontation with Grendel, Beowulf's battle with Grendel and Beowulf's confrontation with Grendel's mother. This new version of the story ties all these events together in a surprisingly neat package. It also reveals nuances in some of the main characters which are surprisingly deft for this kind of heroic epic.
In this story, Beowulf emerges as a man with very human failings. This makes his heroism even more powerful. The story also provides added dimensions to Beowulf's queen, Wealthow (Robin Wright Penn of “The Singing Detective”) and others. Even Grendel is depicted as a being more complex than just a simple monster. The best thing about this movie is that it makes one of the greatest English language stories ever told into something that is a lot more accessible to most people. Instead of a dreaded English reading assignment, it is an enjoyable, thought-provoking movie. It is a bit slow-moving in places, but there are some good action sequences, particularly the dragon battle, and the story of these flawed heroes is captivating. This film rates a B.
I went to the trouble of traveling 50 miles to the nearest theater that showed “Beowulf” in digital 3-D. I have not seen the 2-D version of the film for comparison, but the digital 3-D image is very impressive, almost as good as the vaunted IMAX 3-D system, which I have also seen. Digital 3-D is a system that uses a single digital video projector running at a high frame-rate to produce a lifelike 3-D image with two polarized superimposed images that are viewed through special polarized glasses. This is a superior technology to the old one-projector film system that requires the audience to wear special glasses with one blue lens and one red lens. That was used in such films as “Spy Kids 3-D: Game Over” and “The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl 3-D”). The 3-D experience in those films is markedly inferior to the newer digital 3-D experience.
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