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November 28, 2007

Moviegoing: "Beowulf"

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

I found Robert Zemeckis' 3-D "Beowulf" movie so lifeless that I'm too depressed even to bother cracking a few jokes about it, let alone saying anything helpful. To cheer myself up, I'm treating myself to a musing-a-thon instead.

  • Funny, isn't it? Some people really do change. In the days of "I Wanna Hold Your Hand," "Used Cars" (a steal at $9.95), and "Back to the Future" (all three episodes for a mere $13.49), Robert Zemeckis was an exuberant satirist. But mucho time has passed since then. And where he was once a malicious entertainer, these days he just seems to want to play with machines.

  • I skipped Zemeckis' previous experiment in motion-capture filmmaking, "The Polar Express," because -- semi-curious though I sometimes am about what Hollywood gets up to with its money and its computers -- the previews for the film freaked me out. Motion-capture=major creepiness, I concluded. Those wooden limbs, those near-featureless faces, all of it crossed with the fact that the awful creatures unquestionably bear some resemblance to real humans ... If I were a kid I'd have gone home after a couple of hours in motion-captureland and had myself a really horrendous nightmare.

    Thank heavens: The semi-digital / semi-real characters who inhabit "Beowulf" aren't nearly as disturbing as the ones that spooked me in those "Polar Express" previews. Some problems have clearly been ironed out. But the "Beowulf" humans are spooky enough in their own right. Instead of "Polar Express" devil dolls, the "Beowulf" beings are like overblown videogame creatures, their limbs and gestures showing no trace of where any physical (let alone emotional) impulse might start. Freaky!

    The weakest element in the mix seems to me to be mouths and teeth. A character's mouth seems to have a life apart from the face it inhabits. The teeth -- well, the best I can say about them is that the character designers are clearly hoping no one will take too much notice of their creatures' teeth. If you can't solve a problem, bury it. In any case: The "people" onscreen in "Beowulf" are still creepy-creepy-creepy.

  • Since I guess there's no avoiding the fact that we're going to have this technology in our entertainment lives, I hope it'll become cheap and accessible, and very soon. Only that way will we get to watch a motion-capture movie made by a team that isn't weighed down by budget and strain.

    For one thing, the irreverent dirty-joke possibilities seem endless. Since the creature onscreen that looks like Angelina Jolie isn't really Angelina, why stop with having her be naked? Why not have her go porno-wild? There's a long tradition in cartooning of this, after all. The porno-cartoonists who made Tijuana Bibles had lots of fun with celebrities. In their crude drawings, they'd have Bogey, Hepburn, and Harlow -- as well as characters out of straight-world comics -- perform all kinds of X-rated actions.

    Why settle for a PG-13 mock-Angelina?

    But I'm ignorant of where the law stands on motion-capture. The Tijuana Bibles were under-the-counter creations, and below the notice of the law. So long as they're expensive to produce, motion-capture films will remain aboveboard. Hey, lawyers: If you create a computer facsimile of Natalie Portman or Jennifer Connelly, is it illegal to have it -- er, her -- get down and dirty?

    Small MBlowhard prediction: Copyright-flaunting -- er, make that "flouting" -- China will soon be taking the lead in dirty motion-capture movies.

  • Despite the 3D, despite the crowds, despite the camera angles intended to create awe -- and despite the size of the screen and the throbbing and ka-runching of the speakers -- the film seemed to me not a lot more impressive than looking over a teen's shoulder as he plays "World of Warcraft." All those silly weightless creatures dotting that inane computer space ... There's no getting around the fact that there's an immense difference between looking at a crowd scene in a David Lean movie (all those people really were gathered together, paid, costumed, and moved around), and watching a screenful of pixel-ants.

  • But the thing that struck me the most strongly watching "Beowulf" were the pauses. At dramatic moments, the creatures onscreen would pause. Evidently we were meant to think that they were feeling something, or perhaps thinking something.

    These moments were probably based on the performances and readings of the actual actors (including Anthony Hopkins, Robin Wright Penn, and Ray Winstone) behind the motion-capture creatures. But something awful happens. Watching the digital dressmakers' dolls pause, I found myself thinking: "When an actor pauses you're still watching something. God only knows what, exactly, but you keep on paying attention. But when one of these digital dressmaker's-dolls pauses -- and even when it looks just like an actor taking a pause -- the entire screen goes dead."

    In other words: I've never seen such a vivid example of how a close approximation of something can completely miss that something's emotional core.

    Thinking over this phenomenon, I had a good time tangling myself up in metaphysics. Hmmmm: Despite how closely the the digital dolls mimic humanity, something was clearly lacking. But what?

    Are you OK with calling it "spirit"? I am. Some cartoons after all clearly have a lot of spirit -- Bugs Bunny, George of the Jungle, Betty Boop. Despite being low-budget, 2D creations, Bugs and George and Betty come across as vivid characters. People really relate to 'em, and have for decades. Despite the expense and the wizardry and the groaning effort involved in the making of "Beowulf," I found it impossible for my emotions to attach to a single one of "Beowulf"s creatures.

    So perhaps we can conclude from "Beowulf" that whatever "spirit" is, it has nothing in particular to do with advanced technology, with 3D space, with money, or with a mathematically close imitation of what people "really" look like in the "real" physical world. Like I say: Hmmmm.

    As for spirit ... I sign on to something Roger Scruton once said, more or less: "When you look into the eyes of the woman / man you love, what you're seeing isn't just a chemical reaction." As far as I'm concerned, it's a piece of the divine. And "Beowulf" certainly offered none of that.

Semi-related: ALD points out an informative Stephen Asma piece about how Zemeckis' "Beowulf" differs from the original. (Since I read the original a bazillion years ago, I'll refrain from saying anything at all about it.) I wrote about the Frank Miller / Zack Snyder film "300" -- a semi-similar reality / cartoon hybrid -- here. Here's a wonderfully over the top and pugnacious Amazon viewer-review rave of "300."



UPDATE: Animator Ward Jenkins does an informative, funny, and sensitive job of picking apart what went wrong with Zemeckis' film "The Polar Express." Nice quote: "Why do this to an audience? Why subject us to freakish half-dead soulless children up on a huge screen?"

UPDATE 2: Lester Hunt sees "Beowulf" and owns up to being a Crispin Glover fan.

posted by Michael at November 28, 2007


Copyright-flouting, not Copyright-flaunting.

Posted by: A, Teidt Sfinctre on November 28, 2007 7:24 PM

Heavens, right you are, nice catch, tks, corrected.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on November 28, 2007 7:31 PM

Does that creepiness jive with the "Uncanny Valley" hypothesis?

Posted by: Ed from Malabar on November 28, 2007 7:34 PM

Your review confirmed my suspicions and the wife and I will be giving this one a miss. However, I am grateful to Zemeckis for making this film. It really has goosed sales of my own production of the Kennedy translation of Beowulf. Thank you, Hollywood.

Posted by: Charlton Griffin on November 28, 2007 11:50 PM

Thanks for that review, Michael. I had no desire to see this, in spite of a couple of enthusiastic ravings I read here or there online.

Once you get past the geek aspect of motion capture or CGI, there's still got to be a compelling story involved. I agree, nothing I've seen yet in CGI comes close to conjuring the epic sweep of a David Lean film.

Posted by: Joe Valdez on November 29, 2007 3:45 AM

"Used Cars": film not nearly as good as the Springsteen song, probably second-best track on his magnum opus.

"Back to the Future": consistently underrated film critically, but solidly in my top 50, practically flawless. However, the spectacular SF multiverse aspect leaves me utterly cold, thus loathing the sequels. The original is really about three motifs: culture-clash humor, George McFly's finding confidence, and Marty's relationship with Doc. To which campy SF is put in service. II and III are a pure-camp mess that insults the original.

"Polar Express": are you familiar with the expression "the uncanny valley"?

Posted by: J. Goard on November 29, 2007 4:23 AM

From what little I've seen, I think you're right that this technology isn't quite there yet. But it's improving, like everything else hooked up to silicon and germanium is, and I've no doubt at all that eventually we'll have synthetic actors that are indistinguishable from real ones. We clearly don't have the software (or the hardware, most likely), or most importantly the skills to use them, but all of those will come in time. The incentives are just too great.

And that makes me wonder, Michael, how much of your reaction to the pauses on the screen were due to your knowledge that the characters weren't real. It would be a cruel act to take a yak-herder from the steppes who'd never seen a movie to see "Beowulf", but I wonder if they'd have the same "there's nothing there" reaction?

My guess is that it's a combination of the limits of the technology and your prior knowledge. As the former gets better, and as another generation grows up with it, the problem will disappear. Those future moviegoers will look on reactions like yours the way we look on the people who dove out of the way of silent-movie trains. An interesting bunch they'll be, too. . .

Posted by: Derek Lowe on November 29, 2007 9:06 AM

I wonder if the uncanny valley can be overcome.

Asimov was dead-on when he wrote about how much people would fear and loathe robots, particularly the one who were human in appearance. If you've ever been near an animatronics figure that was supposed to look human, you can attest to the utter creepiness of it.

I think the effect is less in film, so maybe if they finally achieve total realism (which they almost did in the final Matrix film - the whole final sequence is CGI characters), it won't be so bad there. However, Michael's point about pauses in CGI sequences is a direct hit; even when actors are just standing there, something's going on. That will probably never be addressed in CGI.

But I bet anyone will be creeped-out for the foreseeable future by robots, and human-like animatronics.

Posted by: yahmdallah on November 29, 2007 12:00 PM

For whatever this info might be worth, I blogged about this movie here.

Posted by: Lester Hunt on November 29, 2007 1:17 PM

Heaney gave his blessing to it. Oy. What a moron. He also said eminem was a good poet. Oy oy oy.

The main actor was pretty useless. But one scene where the girl played that small harp was wondervaal.

Posted by: landish monster on November 29, 2007 1:44 PM

Sadly this version because it lacks a life or spirit of its own or anything beyond the gimick golly gee whiz factor will be stale and dated by the next software patch. He managed to turn something epic, universal and timeless into something fadish, clique and small.
It will make a lot of money and spawn more of this product.

Posted by: TW on November 29, 2007 4:44 PM

Thank heavens. I thought I was the only person who went away feeling deeply depressed by Beowulf. My reaction wasn't based on the creepy-factor, which I sort of overcame or became numb to, but because there was absolutely no reason for anyone to have made that film. The whole point of reading the poem for me was that it reflects a different consciousness, some of which is unavailable to me but part of which I can still connect with. Making a "modern" story out of it is deliberately taking aim at its very kernel. How hostile is that? But the movie didn't even seem hostile, just frustrated and inert.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on November 29, 2007 5:32 PM

Beowulf was certainly a highly flawed film with much to mock, but nothing that I wasn't able to ignore. I enjoyed the movie quite a bit.
I have to disagree with those who say it didn't capture the spirit of the original work. Beowulf may be regarded as classic literature, but there's little intellectual about it. It's a medieval superhero story. The posing and chest-thumping aren't superfluous distractions; they're practically the point.

Posted by: includedmiddle on November 29, 2007 6:40 PM

Anyone see "Beowulf & Grendel" from a couple years ago? A Canadian/Icelandic co-production, it covered the same basic story, but with a low budget, and without any flash (and certainly no or little CGI). Though it was an action epic, it was nevertheless a quiet, understated film; the sort of low-key movie that modern-day Hollywood is simply incapable of doing. Worth renting, if you can get your hands on it.

Posted by: Will S. on November 30, 2007 1:10 AM

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