[Editor's warning: Spoilers abound.]
What is Robert Zemeckis up to, anyway? The mostly middling reviews of Beowulf have accused the director of getting wrapped up in a circuitous, self-defeating technological quest: motion-capturing flesh-and-blood actors (first in The Polar Express, now here) and turning them into photo-realistic yet still unreal-looking cartoons, in order to achieve...what? Surely nothing that couldn't be achieved by photographing those same actors and merging them into computer-generated backdrops, just like every other fantasy with a nine-figure budget.
The linchpin of most negative reviews is that the Beowulf characters aren't as subtly expressive as real people, or as stylized as the wholly invented creations in CGI movies by Disney, Pixar and Dreamworks—and that this is too bad, because the performers are formidable and their roles much grittier than the movie's PR campaign suggests. The decadent King Hrothgar (acted by Anthony Hopkins); his lovely, reticent queen, Wealthow (Robin Wright Penn); Hrothgar's scheming, sadistic advisor, Unferth (John Malkovich); blustery Beowulf with his steely glare and six-pack abs (Ray Winstone, digitally youth-ified); Wiglaf (Brendan Gleeson), the hero's loyal lieutenant and best friend; the grotesque monster Grendel (Crispin Glover); his slinky-buxom sea-beast mother (Angelina Jolie): all are more detailed and idiosyncratic than action epics usually allow. Every character is complicated and in some ways compromised—especially Beowulf, a '70s movie hero—a braggart, liar, trickster and lothario who once paused during a five-day-long swimming race to bang a sea siren and will do it again. (To quote Chris Rock: "It is damn near impossible for a man to turn down sex.")
Would these characters and situations be enriched—and wouldn't the movie be better—if we got to see the actors, rather than seeing them once removed, acting through the CGI version of a rubber mask? Yes and no. Beowulf would be more subtly modulated, and certainly more acceptable to critics, if it were more conventional; its newness requires creative trade-offs that some may consider deal-breakers. But a more conventional Beowulf would surely lose the distinctiveness that's bound up in Zemeckis' process. The director's tools aren't new—they're a high tech version of Rotoscoping, a hand-drawn technique that's been around since the 1930s. But Zemeckis' deployment of the process—his personal aesthetic—is new, and defiantly unique. It has elements of live action drama, cartoons, still photography, abstract art, representational painting and puppetry. Beowulf has many flaws—a sentimental attitude toward warrior machismo; a rushed quality to the second half; an unconvincing sense of physical density and gravity; a few too many dick jokes, including elaborate attempts to shield a nude Beowulf's mighty sword that just become ridiculous. But Zemeckis' vision coheres. The film is primordially populist yet smart—an old tale told with muscular grace.
Like Polar Express, Beowulf obliterates the distinction between foreground (actors) and background (special effects) that affects even the best live action-CG hybrids. It plays like a meticulously rendered storybook come to life—but its tone is more varied, mixing (sometimes forced) bawdy humor, Playstation-like violence and solemn poetic touches. The characters move and talk like "real" people but retain a painted quality; this forcibly makes them emblematic rather than specific—sculptures in motion. The film foregrounds this idea via a recurring visual grace note. When Grendel's mother rises from a pool in her cave lair, she's encased in what appears to be liqueified gold which slowly melts away as she approaches the hero (a striptease). When monsters die in the movie, their monstrous forms dissolve away. When Grendel's mother sidles up to Beowulf and caresses his sword (the movie's Freudian sight gags are blatant, knowing and funny), the weapon melts like a popsicle in a toaster oven. Zemeckis' CG Denmark is a tragically impermanent world where steel, wood, snow and flesh can melt away, or burn away, or simply decay over time.
This notion isn't auteurist whimsy. It originates in the script, which is credited to comics writer Neil Gaiman and writer-director Roger Avary. The story begins in Denmark a few centuries after Christ's birth, the old pagan ways are in decline and Christianity is ascendant (shades of Hal Barwood and Matthew Robbins' 1981 fantasy Dragonslayer). The duo has revised the original poem for the blockbuster film/graphic novel/video game era and stirred in borderline-Monty Python jokes and self-aware philosophizing that might have been inspired by John Gardner's 1971 novel Grendel. The story is broken into two halves—phases of Beowulf's life before and after liberating Hrothgar's kingdom—then jam-packed twinned or repeated situations, images and lines. The result is a visual echo chamber in which human (and monster) behavior keeps repeating itself.
After Grendel's initial rampage, Unferth asks it's all right to pray to Christ as well as to the usual gods, and judging from the body count, neither effort helps. "The gods will do nothing for us that we will not do for ourselves," Hrothgar proclaims. In the film's final third, Unferth's son (also played by Malkovich) is a priest whose faith can't protect him against a dragon's rampage. Beowulf's body is cast adrift in a boat, its mast looming like a crucifix; when the boat is set ablaze, the cross burns and topples into the sea. ("The weak observe the rituals," says Gardner's Grendel, mocking man's practice of religion, "...take their hats off, put them on again, raise their arms, lower their arms, moan, intone, press their palms together.") In the movie's first half, Grendel and Grendel's mother lay waste to the pagan world; in the second half, Beowulf's son (spawned by his night with Grendel's mother) takes the form of a fire-breathing dragon and incinerates the newly Christian world. (The movie could have been called Achilles' Heels. Beowulf's is between his legs.) Grendel's shambling walk—like that of a beaten, palsied slave—is linked with the clubfooted gait of the servant boy Unferth abuses; the monster is tormented by the sounds of "merriment, joy and fornication" (Hrothgar's favorite nouns) coming from the mead hall, the architectural representation of a society that Grendel (like Unferth's slave boy) can't join. Glover's performance as Grendel is repulsive and heartbreaking—Frankenstein's monster as played by a deformed and furious child, with a touch of the hunchback of Notre Dame (when Grendel hears happiness, he shrieks in pain).
"It's all the same in the end," the monster mused in Gardner's Grendel. "Matter and motion, simple or complex. No difference, finally. Death, transfiguration. Ashes to ashes and slime to slime, amen." These are some of the same themes explored by the Coen brothers in No Country for Old Men, and Zemeckis' direction is just as controlled and specific. But where the Coens' artistry is being taken seriously and argued about, Zemeckis' has gone largely unremarked upon, presumably because Beowulf is based on a poem that bored people in high school, packaged by its distributor as a gee-whiz 3-D spectacle, and described by critics as a successor to the more boisterous, aesthetically unsophisticated 300: a kick-ass cartoon by a director who doesn't care about people. Quite the contrary: while Beowulf's wild action choreography panders to videogame buffs, it's photographed by Zemeckis in a classical style (favoring longer takes, and "cutting" via camera movement whenever possible) that Alfred Hitchcock would have admired. And every shot, cut and transition feeds the story and burnishes its (yes) human themes. Like The Last of the Mohicans and Braveheart, Beowulf is a blood-and-guts action movie about being, nothingness and the urge to leave a permanent mark, whether through legendary deeds (after each heroic feat, Beowulf bellows his name so people will remember it), public works (Hrothgar's mead hall is his pride and joy) or procreation (Hrothgar wants an heir but shoots blanks with his queen; Grendel's mother wants another son to replace the one Beowulf slew; Beowulf later becomes king but fails to produce an heir with either his queen or his mistress).
Verbally and visually, the movie depicts birth and death as portals to oblivion. When Grendel, his arm ripped off by Beowulf, staggers back to his home, his mother comforts him as he dies, and Zemeckis' camera slowly circles down on him from above as his life force ebbs; resting atop a rock immersed in water, his huge, malformed head eclipsing the shriveling remains of his body, he looks like a newborn infant being bathed in a sink. Beowulf vanquishes his bastard dragon-son by punching a hole through a valve in his throat and ripping his heart out; the pumping of the dragon's heart rhymes across the decades with Grendel's exposed, pulsating eardrum, which Beowulf punches and tears. Beowulf vanquishes Grendel by tearing off his arm; in the movie's climax, dangling from his dragon-son's body by a chain, Beowulf severs his own arm to allow himself a better shot at the creature's heart. The warrior dies in the surf beside beside the golden humanoid corpse of his son; like Grendel, the combatants expire partly immersed in water that enfolds them like amniotic fluid. "The sea is my mother!" Beowulf bellows in his introductory scene as his ship plows through storm-tossed waves evocative of the "wine-dark seas" in The Odyssey. "She'll never take me back to her murky womb." Eventually, of course, she does. Empires rise and fall; good and evil endlessly circle each other, merging in combat and coitus. Zemeckis makes this sentiment plain in the final exchange of shots between Grendel's mother—floating near the site of her lover and son's deaths, her breasts bobbing on the surface—and Beowulf's appointed heir, Wiglaf, who, despite his previously impeccable judgment, stares at the siren in fascination, then wades a wee bit further out to get a better look. (Cue Chris Rock.)
"What is most troubling about Beowulf, aside from the obvious, is what it says about the career of Robert Zemeckis, who has gone from being a director of stories like Forrest Gump to an orchestrator of eye candy and a willing slave to technological advances," writes Los Angeles Times lead film critic Kenneth Turan. That's a questionable assertion, given how cartoonishly exaggerated—even "unreal"—his characters were in Used Cars, Romancing the Stone and the first Back to the Future. If indeed Zemeckis lost his way, he lost it in Reagan's first term. He's been on this quest—applying technological innovation to mainstream commercial blockbusters—for nearly two decades, starting with 1988's Who Framed Roger Rabbit, which employed motion-controlled cameras to let 'toons interact (often in elaborately choreographed long takes) with flesh-and-blood actors. Even then Zemeckis was accused of being too enamored with the mechanics of technology. From the Back to the Future sequels through Forrest Gump, Contact and What Lies Beneath, the gripes continued. (Only Cast Away escaped them.) The all-style-no-substance rap discounts the possibility that Beowulf's substance is embedded in its style. And it discounts the possibility that, in his determination to tell elemental stories with increasingly daring techniques, Zemeckis is one of the few true visionaries making studio blockbusters today.
It's unfortunate for Zemeckis that Beowulf's brains are in its images. That's a severe deterrent to critical respect. As Hitchcock complained to Francois Truffaut, most reviewers treat cinema as if it were illustrated stage drama or literature—and despite its poetic pedigree, Beowulf downplays such values. It's the kind of movie that Hitchcock, referring to his own popular, critically maligned Psycho, described as "...the kind of picture in which the camera takes over." He meant that as praise. So do I.
Matt Zoller Seitz is Editor-in-Chief of The House Next Door.