Let’s pity those who aim to push the boundaries of computer-generated technology; there’s ever chance they’ll end up with a film is weirdly misbegotten as Beowulf. One of two competing works based around the Old English epic poem, Robert Zemeckis’ expensive film didn’t bust many blocks on release, and has since vanished into relative obscurity for such a bally-hooed prospect. There’s a simple reason for this; time has not been kind of Beowulf. A year later, 2008 saw Iron Man generate a run of hit Marvel films and imitators that used CGI to create action scenes in the real world, making Beowulf’s motion-capture/animation hybrid look decidedly dated.
The oddball writing team of Roger Avary (Pulp Fiction, The Rules of Attraction) and Neil Gaiman gives some clue as to the wobbly tone here, but Beowulf feels like the result of some shonky creative meetings. A big cast including Anthony Hopkins, John Malkovich, Brendan Gleeson and Robin Wright Penn allow their likenesses to be used for CGI characters that look as dead-eyed and inexpressive as PS2 game characters, while Ray Winstone lends his gravelly betting-shop-flogger voice to Beowulf, who looks like a Jesus-Christ super-saviour hero, often naked but with helmets, pillars and other items obscuring his genitals in Austin Powers-style. Beowulf aims to please the king (Hopkins) by defeating the monstrous Grendel but, in a twist that’s familiar from the 1998 Godzilla to Pacific Rim, discovers he’s killed off the child, not the mother…
And the mother is Angelina Jolie, also unclothed throughout; this Beowulf’s adventures looks like a Jim Steinman album cover and bears the unmistakable feel of a teenage boy’s fantasy. And yet a $150 million film based on an Old English poem can only be interesting, if only to see how the narrative is reshaped into a modern idiom. There are some really striking visual flourishes here, like a view from beneath the ground as a bloodstain spreads. In fact, the world of Beowulf is striking to behold, and the dialogue and restructuring isn’t bad, it’s just that technology hadn’t caught up with character design in 2007, and the resulting lack of involvement with these waxwork figures is fatal.
Beowulf is something of a noble failure here, and attempt to harness Hollywood to access classic texts rather than comic book archetypes. It doesn’t quite work, but in amongst the ruins, there’s the design of what might have been a game-changing dive into turning great literature into great art.