(Sight & Sound, BFI)

Denmark, AD 507. The ageing Norse King Hrothgar holds debauched revels in his drinking hall. These disturb a monstrous giant in the hills above, who attacks the hall and slaughters many of Hrothgar’s people. Hrothgar recognises the creature as “Grendel”…

Like Zack Snyder’s 300 a few months back, Robert Zemeckis’ Beowulf blends premodern storytelling (with updated plot tweaks) and the latest virtual cinema technology. On the one hand, then, Beowulf offers the proudly primitive pleasures of a film in which the title sixth-century warrior hero bursts from the eyeball of the monster leviathan that swallowed him, or where a shrieking deformed giant swings a luckless man round like a rag doll, then impales him on a candelabra. In Britain, Beowulf is rated 12A, luckily for a film that should find an eager core audience with bloodthirsty boys. Then again, anyone who devoured even children’s book retellings of the Anglo-Saxon poem may find the screen images tame beside the gory print pictures.

Beowulf also marks, if not a milestone, then a major progression in the cinema of simulation and motion-capture, where real actors’ movements are transferred to computer-animated characters. This is Zemeckis’ third involvement with a “mocap” film, after directing The Polar Express (2004) and executive producing Monster House (2006). Beowulf, though, is radically different. Not only do several of the virtual cast look believably like familiar actors (led by Ray Winstone, Anthony Hopkins and Angelina Jolie) but for much of the time they, and the film as a whole, could pass for the “real” thing. In other words, Beowulf often feels like live-action with special effects, rather than computer animation.

The problem lies in the qualifier, often. Beowulf is far more ambitious than The Polar Express, which exacerbates an underlying problem in the former film. Not the “dead eyes” that alienated some Polar Express viewers – the eyes in Beowulf rove and react with convincing humanity. But there’s still a chronic shot-to-shot inconsistency between characters we accept as human and the “same” characters looking artificial and soulless, without the softening stylisation of Polar Express’ picture-book trappings. Audiences have long accepted cartoon characters as human and human actors as cartoons, but the Beowulf characters’ shifting state corrodes their film’s reality.

Another generation of technology might solve these problems. But what’s the point of mocap in a film like Beowulf? Why not stay with real actors and sets when practical (much of Beowulf’s action takes place in a single hall), using CGI and mocap only when needed? Certainly, the monster Grendel is impressive, its horrid appearance belied by his characterisation as a brain-damaged child in perpetual tantrum. Grendel feels like the next degeneration of Gollum in The Lord of the Rings, as performer Crispin Glover rivals Gollum’s Andy Serkis as a virtual feral-human. In contrast, Angelina Jolie’s demon seductress is more consistently human than her mocapped co-stars, her sensuality missed in other scenes.

The film’s tone is as uneven as its look, though rather likeably so. Zemeckis makes a broad joke of the idea of the heroic nude, as Winstone’s Beowulf fights Grendel in the buff while the film-makers use Austin Powers devices to hide his hero’s manhood. (The film already alarmed us at the outset with the threat of Hopkins full-frontal.) Yet writers Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary interpret Beowulf as a downbeat saga of randy supermen who boast of slaying monsters but who are really puppets of Jolie’s fecund succubus. It’s a clever spin, so natural that viewers new to Beowulf may presume it was always told that way, but it’s high tragedy without anyone to really engage with.

The script suffers from uneven dialogue – Beowulf’s first sea scene is particularly clunky – and from doing little with interesting support characters, especially Beowulf’s Queen (Robin Wright Penn) and best friend (Brendan Gleeson). The dramatic deficiencies make the discordant voices, with Winstone’s blunt tones set against the lilts of Hopkins, Jolie and Wright Penn, hard to take on board.

This review was based on the IMAX 3D version of Beowulf. As of writing, it’s not obvious how the film will fare in smaller formats. The IMAX 3D Polar Express was much more impressive than the 2D edition, but even blown up, Beowulf’s contradictions leave one forever unsure if one’s watching a film or an effect. Even a climactic flying dragon battle, terrific in parts, is less exciting in toto than the one in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2005), because by now one sees all the shot-by-shot shortcomings. Interesting and frustrating in equal measures, Beowulf’s technique gets in the way of the fun.

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