We Have the Technology
By Jeff Reichert

Dir. Robert Zemeckis, U.S., Paramount

“But thinkers and poets of the past-
Oh, no, they had to leap into the dark so blindly.
Whereas, we’ll stand free and upright like men.
The day’s golden light
Linked with our machines our eyes are beaming.
It won’t matter at all how weird things are seeming.
We have the technology not available before.
We have the technology
—Pere Ubu

It’s not inconceivable that the single poet often attributed to the “official” recorded text of Beowulf might have been aware that in the very process of committing to parchment a mess of real historical figures, locations, and occurrences blended with freshly imagined interpretations of traditional legend and fictions he was performing an utterly new act. Not inconceivable—but perhaps unlikely. Though Beowulf was commonly held by scholars as among the earliest recorded works of English literature, its writing down on paper was more likely due to a moment of inspired invention borne of necessity than a self-conscious desire for entry into the historical record. If the latter were the case, I’m sure we’d know well the identity of Beowulf’s “author.”

What a different a millennia makes—flash forward about a thousand years and the crew behind the technology-driven film adaptation of the Old English epic poem have arrived singing the praises of their own advances from the rooftops; hosannas abound in trade and entertainment publications as if Robert Zemeckis’s Beowulf was already a formative part of some new computer-generated lore. It may well be. More than a little unnerved by the bulbous, shark-eyed plasticine forms that populated the director’s previous foray into “performance capture” technology, I left The Polar Express to more heroic members of the Reverse Shot team. But promises that Beowulf represented a huge leap forward in the technology (More realistic movements! No more dead eyes!), and my love for this much groaned-over staple of high school and college lit classes were enough to lure me to a theater, even in the face of a wildly infantile (yet apparently successful) marketing campaign.

It’s obvious that the core elements of the source poem continue to hold a certain sway over the collective imagination: John Gardner’s 1971 novel Grendel was a postmodern re-reading from the titular monster’s perspective, Seamus Heaney’s fresh 1999 translation of the poem was a surprise sensation upon release, and it was adapted for film twice recently, with 1999’s sci-fi film Beowulf and two years ago by Canadian filmmaker Sturla Gunnarsson in Beowulf and Grendel. Given the text’s stature, it’s surprising that we haven’t seen more attempts at bringing Beowulf to life. Mysterious creatures of questionable origin attacking in the night, unvarnished heroism, grand battles, noble tradition, hubris—it’s the template for myth, and in some ways as close as the Anglo-Saxon canon has come to replicating the continuing influence of Greek mythology (I’d count the Arthurian legends among this small number of texts as well). While taking some narrative liberties with the original poem, this screenplay, by graphic novelist Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary (of Killing Zoe fame), generally hews close to home. Aging Danish lord Hrothgar (Anthony Hopkins), reveling with his people in his new hall Heorot is beset upon by the horrible Grendel (here, a nicely digitally mutated Crispin Glover), and a call is placed for heroes, leading Ray Winstone’s Beowulf to the scene. He’s not quite the uncomplicated champion of the saga—John Malkovich’s royal advisor Unferth directly questions the truth of the interloper’s exploits—but it’s not long before he’s bested Grendel, ripping the monster’s arm off following a terrific fight (in the nude, no less).

After this classic opening act, the screenwriters’ handiwork becomes more directly felt, much to the film’s detriment. The second and third acts, once constructed more episodically in relation to each other, are here sewn together under by a continuation of a new ethical quandary introduced in the first act: Beowulf may be a hero, but how much of one? And at what cost? The film maintains an obvious sympathy for Grendel—he’s a horrific and horrifically misunderstood monster, and Beowulf’s victory comes as a surprise to both combatants: Grendel, seemingly always wracked by pain arrives at a heretofore unknown threshold before his death, proud, questionable Beowulf, left with a bleeding arm in his hands to back up his tall tales. These chinks in the hero’s armor grow in the second act: Instead of defeating Grendel’s mother (Angelina Jolie, the digitized siren that has already launched several thousand teenaged boners), the warrior is instead seduced by promises of wealth, kingship, and invincibility. Thus the dragon of the third act isn’t just a force of nature Beowulf must best to save a kingdom, but a creature sprung from a portion of his own soul, left damaged in by his earlier bargain with the devil. This mirroring effect echoes the first act’s intimation of Hrothgar’s earlier coupling with Grendel’s mother, which produced the monster Grendel himself. This is certainly Gaiman territory—his silly Mirrormask trafficked in similar tropes of mistaken and multiplied identities and the terrible weight of heredity. These fleshed out (or invented) connections are a thoroughly modern twist and something of a wet blanket—Beowulf, at one thousand years of age probably doesn’t need this kind of updating, and character psychology at this level is certainly an invention of a more modern time.

So as the rock solid edifice that was the epic poem Beowulf is gradually undermined by cheap Freudianisms, what keeps the proceedings bearable is the investment of its performers, an investment not wholly buried under the copious layers of animation. Aside from the distraction engendered by Ray Winstone’s buff, hairless, and far-from-reality body, the cast, which also includes Brendan Gleeson and Robin Wright Penn, is allowed as much room to breathe as the technology allows, which in this iteration is a surprising amount. Faint praise perhaps, but inasmuch as it is possible to offer a “performance” within the context of animation (a question of degrees also raised recently by Patton Oswalt’s terrific turn in Ratatouille, and the cast of Wallace & Gromit in The Curse of the Were-Rabbit), everyone, Winstone and Gleeson especially, deliver credible, realized performances that live beyond the “I AM BEOWULF” histrionics of the trailer and TV spots. I’m shocked that I’m at all able to acknowledge this. Do these performance-captured “real” actors look that much more believable than the animated humans in something like Shrek? In many ways not really—the technology presents a paradoxical vision of humanity: figures are much rounder than one might expect (bloated as if soaked in water for a few days) yet move jerkily, and always have to maintain a slight bit of motion just so that their stasis doesn’t become absolute, and noticeable to the human eye. The possibility of mechanically reproducing actors raises something of an ontological question—storytelling has long since ceded its primary delivery method from the written to the visual, just as the written supplanted the oral centuries ago, so is this the way of the future for the medium? A cinema where the actor stands the possibility of being elided entirely? But as performance-capture innovator Rob Legato correctly notes: “We'll never replace what people are primarily interested in—the nuances and tics in people's faces. A computerized version is a facsimile that leaves you cold. It's another genre. It doesn't replace anything.” SAG shouldn’t get worried, yet.

But just because this new visual technology no longer negates performance value and offers unlimited potential for moving the “camera” intricately, inventing fantastic creatures, or staging battles otherwise impossible (this possibility of conjuration being the other portion of cinema’s appeal), a filmmaker shouldn’t necessarily exercise this right. Used economically, the animation in Beowulf creates a few lasting effects—a near-silent, miles-long tracking shot from Hrothgar’s castle to Grendel’s lair; Beowulf slicing a stories-tall sea creature from head to tail in a “shot” marked by extreme motion tugging against some kind of nearly suspended animation; the fearsomely imagined rendering of mutated, blistering Grendel. Some of the battle material actually approaches the obvious model such filmmaking must always be indebted to and enthralled by: Ray Harryhausen. The few limitations of incorporating live, non-animated actors into digital creations aren’t apparent until performance capture reveals them—I now believe that something truly cinematic might come out of this technique (perhaps James Cameron’s forthcoming Avatar?). But by the third or fourth time Zemeckis unnecessarily swoops his camera up for a bird’s-eye view perspective of the action below, it’s clear that this film isn’t going to be it. Zemeckis’s Cast Away was a great, sadly underrated piece of minimal, elemental filmmaking. Beowulf strives for similar elegant grandeur and, by virtue of its general allegiance to the spirit of its source material and occasional moments of restraint, brushes against success.