Friday, 21 December 2007

review: beowulf (robert zemeckis, 2007)

I listened, felt myself swept up. I knew very well that all he said was ridiculous, not light for their darkness but flattery, illusion, a vortex pulling them from sunlight to heat, a kind of midsummer burgeoning, waltz to the sickle. Yet I was swept up.

In John Gardner's astonishingly good 1971 novel Grendel, the eponymous monster, transformed from the source poem's mute, irrational, almost elemental malevolent force into an existentially-questing, nihilistically mischievous philosopher-child, listens to the Shaper in Hrothgar's hall weaving the random, piecemeal events of the Danish people's history into a rousing, glorious song. He knows that the song consists of nothing but lies, that it is an attempt to create a pattern of order, meaning and high-minded idealism out of pure chance, violence and base brutality, but nonetheless it represents an emotional force that cannot be resisted, that rewrites history and recreates human consciousness. "The man had changed the world," Grendel muses after hearing what we recognize as the first lines of Beowulf, "had torn up the past by its thick, gnarled roots and had transmuted it." Like Gardner's novel, Robert Zemeckis' film is aware of and adresses this process of myth-making as an ideological and aesthetic reshaping of events, and, if its reworking of the Beowulf myth is ultimately nowhere near as daring, insightful, multi-levelled and brilliant as that in Grendel, it offers a surprisingly inventive and astute interrogation of the poem and its ideas on heroism.

Where Gardner took the adversarial figure of Grendel as his protagonist, Zemeckis (and writers Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary, who can at least as plausibly be defined as this film's
auteurs - Gaiman's voice is especially recognizable) focuses narrowly on the figure of Beowulf himself. Compared to The Lord of the Rings, for instance, this is a narrower, more personal epic, with a strongly-defined character at its centre, and this character's progression forming the focus and backbone of the narrative.

What we see here is not the simplistic reversal of values typical of much revisionist myth revisiting (hero bad, adversary good). There is clearly much to Beowulf here that is heroic - superhuman stature and strength, unflagging courage. But all too often, especially in the film's first half, this courage palpably crosses the line into brash foolhardiness or showy macho bravado, revealing the personal ambition and glory-seeking that fuels them.

Evil, in this vision of the myth, lies within precisely this ambition and vanity, a temptation to which all the leaders succumb. Embodied in the figure of Grendel's mother, who here becomes a succubus-like Lilith figure, tempting men with promises of wealth, power and glory besides her obvious transgressive, forbidden sexuality. Beowulf's encounter with this figure in her underwater lair reminded me of Guyon finding himself in the Cave of Mammon in Edmund Spenser's epic
The Faerie Queene - the same themes of virtue and temptation are being explored.

Like Grendel in Gardner's novel, this film, aware as it is of the hollowness of the heroic ideal, remains uncontrollably half in love with it. And this comes through in the joyously over-the-top action and feasting scenes that can only possibly be watched with a strong sense of irony and with tongue firmly in cheek. Beowulf's naked fight with Grendel, which strays uncomfortably close to Austin Powers territory, is perhaps a step too far, but on the whole, these sequences manage the difficult balancing act of being simultaneously spectacular and exciting, and campily entertaining.

As likely as the action is to be the film's big box-office draw, however, it's hardly the main purpose of the film, or its most interesting aspect. This is a film with a complex tonal range, able to switch seamlessly from intense horror (that really stretches the PG rating further than anything I can recall) to slapstick comedy, at the drop of a hat - as when, during the opening scene, the camera leaves the mead-soaked revelry in Hrothgar's hall and suddenly plunges into the seemingly endless, austere, barren landscapes around it, the hall an increasingly pathetic light surrounded by the infinite night and the dark forest.

The film's primary movement is from the boisterous exuberance of the first half to the wintry, regretful melancholy of the second, as Beowulf ultimately has to come to terms with the fruits of his pride and vanity, and to accept his own limitations. Repeatedly the film contrasts youthful ambition with the regret of old age, suggesting the inevitability of the process and, as the final scene makes clear, the universality of the endless cycle.

A big bone of contention has been the performance-capture technique that Zemeckis has utilized for this film. The technology has clearly improved since
The Polar Express (2004), but it has not yet been perfected - the faces of Zemeckis' protagonists remain clearly artificial, and not as expressive as live actors. The trade-off is that Zemeckis, freed of practical limitations, is completely unfettered in his camera placements and movements, to a degree that would probably have been impossible in live-action without a much higher budget. Ultimately, the film is good enough that I was able to ignore its animated-ness after the first few minutes. Nonetheless, there remains a vague air of pointlessness about the technique, which ultimately adds little to the film apart from a gimmicky sheen of cutting-edge technology. (Though at this stage I should point out that I did not watch Beowulf in its intended 3D format, which might perhaps have changed my opinion on this point.)

, in the end, is something of an odd film. A blockbuster in budget and technology, it is miles away from the flat, depthless monotony of, for instance, 300 (Zack Snyder, 2007). Its themes are perhaps painted too self-consciously, too transparently, for the film to qualify as a masterpiece, but there is clearly much thought, intelligence and feeling invested into it, and multiple levels of meaning and imagery to decipher (I have not touched on, for instance, the thread underlying the main narrative that traces the old pagan religion's slow death beneath the approach of Christianity). Also, some knowledge of the source poem is almost essential to understanding the film and its intentions - all of which, as I mentioned in a previous post, makes me wary of classifying Beowulf as a standard blockbuster epic. It is something altogether more thoughtful and affecting, and altogheter more interesting.


bobblog said...

hehe Zemeckis has been skewing the notion of blockbuster for years. Be it who framed roger rabbit, forest gump or polar express. I have a great admiration for him. Probably with the exception of Burton most contemporary directors cannot combine the weird with populist tendencies so well.

Daniel Vella said...

I have a somewhat mixed opinion of Zemeckis. The Back to the Future trilogy, for me, are some of the high points of the blockbuster genre. Who Framed Roger Rabbit? is almost as great, and I find Contact pretty underrated. Apart from that, though, I'm not a huge fan of Forrest Gump, and have been pretty underwhelmed by the rest of his output.

Beowulf is probably his best film since the Back to the Future trilogy, though.

Neil Sarver said...

I have mixed feelings about Zemeckis as well, although I suspect they are different somehow. Growing up in the '80s, he was the director of Used Cars, I Wanna Hold Your Hand, Romancing the Stone, Back to the Future, Who Framed Roger Rabbit? and co-creator of "Tales from the Crypt" in the time between my birth and my high school graduation. By no means a perfect record of brilliance, but a solid record with a brilliant streak under the surface.

Since then his record has been spotty to say the least. I hated Contact so bad, I felt like it made my brain bleed - Seriously, if he'd been standing outside the theater, I'd literally have punched him - and swore off his work permanently... which lasted until my girlfriend, at the time, turned on Cast Away, which wasn't exactly bad but didn't sway my general opinion.

Beowulf I saw because of Gaiman and Avary and, well, because of the 3-D, which I absolutely did not miss. I basically agree with everything you said about the movie, although I will confirm that the motion capture is pretty cool in 3-D and I suspect, without having seen it without the 3-D, that it does indeed work better that way.