I. Am. Beowulf… Or am I?

As Tuesy and I sat through Robert Zemeckis’ souped-up Beowulf, two questions cropped up. The first came in several forms, but was really an inquiry into the same identity issue: “Is that Anthony Hopkins?” “Is that John Malkovich?” “Is that that one that’s married to Sean Penn?” “Is that Ray Winstone’s stomach?” The second question was “Why is everything CGI?” I guess the questions are connected, and they both spring from the film’s hybrid status somewhere between animation and live action performance.

This is one of those films that utilises cutting edge technology, relying on refined techniques for its novelty value and spectacular impact, but tempers the sense of futurity in several ways. The adaptation of a classic tale might be seen as enhancing the digital surprise by differentiating this latest version with older renditions of the same material, but it also aligns the excesses of its action with the hyperbolic, epic imagination of arcane mythology. Primarily, though, Beowulf repeatedly asserts an earthy physicality that offsets the intangible number-crunching of digital animation. From its very first scenes, it piles up images of drunken rutting, belching rambunctiousness.

There is dirt, and there is filth. Personally, I don’t think it goes far enough, and there are rather too many shiny, gleaming objects, clear complexions and superb haircuts, but the intention is clear: it purchases your belief in the presence of its characters by reminding you of their organs, appetites and bodily functions. By programming your characters to perform all the tics and workings of a body powered by digestive, rather than algorithmic processes, you can help to knock down the first barrier to engagement with animated characters, namely, the impression that you’re watching a machinic figure moving with pre-directed precision. This disavowal of computed origins is further strengthened by the trace elements of the actors. The film involves something known as “performance capture”, which designates a more nuanced version of “motion capture“. If motion capture was meant to record only the bodily movements of actors as a series of co-ordinates over which a digital body could be laid, performance capture will record facial expressions as well, transferring them to the digital avatar that will take the actor’s place onscreen. These processes descend from rotoscoping, whereby cartoons could be traced frame by frame over live action footage, and the main aim seems to be to preserve the motile characteristics and unique gait of a performer, which are difficult to mimic in traditional cel animation. So, that is Anthony Hopkins. You can see many of his distinctive gestures, and hear his voice. But this is a ghosted version of that performance, manipulated enough to qualify as animation, but with the actor’s imprint flickering in and out of view in a flash of the eyes or a curl of the lip. Angelina Jolie in particular keeps her own facial features (whether or not the rest of her anatomy is accurately reflected would require closer inspection…), but the CG chassis that embodies her onscreen is just different enough to mark her character out as a shape-shifting phantom in human form, one of the few times when the digital nature of a protagonist makes perfect sense.

As if daring you to dismiss him as a mere set of pixels, Beowulf continually exerts his phallic power by stating his name with vigour, as if that was all you needed to know, as if forcing you to remember it in connection with whatever mighty deed he happened to be conducting at the time. His manhood, hidden behind strategically placed objects, stands in contrast to Grendel’s undecorated crotch during their naked battle. As the film wears on and Beowulf bgins to doubt his own prowess, his cocky verve is undermined in a series of threats of penetration, enhanced by the 3-D tech’s duty to thrust things in the direction of the viewer, and especially in an unsubtle moment where Grendel’s mother causes his sword to melt away.

OK, that’s my bargain basement psychoanalysis bit done for today. Let’s get back to the machinery. The term “performance capture” is really just PR for a fussier version of mo-cap, since it offers reassurance that the actor behind computer graphics is carefully preserved rather than thickly painted out. It prompts the spectator to engage in a kind of microscopic inspection of the film’s surfaces, assessing the resemblance of all that dirt, water, smoke, blood and skin to its real-world counterparts. If IMAX 3-D, all-CG films are to become a regular practice in Hollywood, the technology might have to overcome that effect, since it directs the eye to the minute details, possibly at the expense of the broader issues of narrative and character. I can’t help getting distracted by the remnants of the 3-D effects every time something bleeds on the camera or pokes a spear in its direction, though I know I’m supposed to be involved by these incursions into my personal space. The technology announces itself so loudly that it attracts a nerdish, picky sort of spectatorial attention that is less interested in congratulating the latest achievements than in ticking off the film-makers for the inadequacies of the process when compared to actual human beings. The best evidence I can find for this hyper-critical attitude comes from reviews in popular newspapers and magazines. Sorry if this looks long-winded, but I want to prove by repetition that critics have settled into a kind of running commentary on the state of the art, but with a seemingly limited vocabulary for doing so:

“Humanity takes a back seat on this rollercoaster. The male characters are two-meat dishes, beefy and hammy, with a penchant for taking their clothes off before battle. (How many shots of Winston’s derriere did they think we needed?) The females (Robin Penn Wright, Alison Lohman) are glazed-eyed mannequins stuck in the shop-window of digimation. This process is still not confident enough to bring all its goods to the sales areas. When two or more characters stop and talk, the film becomes dead and decorous, though I exempt John Malkovich, bringing an Olivier-worthy snap and sarcasm to wicked Unferth.”

Nigel Andrews, The Financial Times, 14th November 2007.

“Of course, this all unfolds in a lovingly created, yet entirely synthetic computer-generated, environment, and the success or failure of the project, for some, might hinge upon the ultimate credibility of this world – in some places the “synthespians” look like rubber-faced automatons, while in others the film raises insuperable issues about the nature of stardom (if the computerised Jolie is the same, but not quite, as Jolie in real life, why use Jolie at all, other than as brand value?).”

Kevin Maher, The Times, 15th November 2007.

“Close-up, the effect is startling – particularly with Winstone, whose gruff, tough personality is perfectly matched by his muscle-bound avatar. It’s still a little airless and lacking in soul, while the sets and extras lack the vibrancy of pure animations such as Finding Nemo or Monsters, Inc. And for all of the hoopla about advances in 3D, the glasses remain uncomfortable and the in-your-face shots gimmicky. There are moments of terrific action – and Jolie is just embarrassingly seductive, even in pixelated form – but the tone is more Monty Python than The Lord Of The Rings: summed up in one sequence where furniture and ornaments are used to obscure the jangly bits of Winstone’s naked warrior. Ground-breaking and technologically exciting it may be, but while Beowulf might be significant in the history of moving pictures, it is not a picture that will move you.”

Nev Pierce, BBC, 14th November 2007.

“The only problem with the film is that the motion-capture animators haven’t quite got the eyes right, with the result that all the characters have the same oddly vacant expression. Similarly, while the majority of the characters strongly resemble the actors playing them, Beowulf seems to have been modelled on Sean Bean rather than Ray Winstone.”

Matthew Turner, View London, 15th November 2007.

“If there’s something perverse about assembling a cast like this (Brendan Gleeson, John Malkovich and Robin Wright Penn are also on duty) only to coat them in a kind of cosmetic digital wax, the actors’ personalities do come through, and the facial rendering is less creepily plastic than in “Polar Express.” In as much as Beowulf himself is capable of nuance — doubt, shame, regret, as well as courage — it’s there on screen, right along with his rippling biceps and his nasal hair. Only the dull and robotic eyes give the game away.”

Tom Charity, CNN.

“Using the same computer wizardry as Zemeckis’ The Polar Express with some additional bells and whistles, Beowulf goes a long way to correcting the dead-eyed look that made that 2004 Yuletide fable such a faintly creepy experience. Up close Anthony Hopkins’ ageing king Hrothgar, Angelina Jolie’s slinky siren and John Malkovich’s sceptical knight are pretty much perfect facsimiles that answer a lot of questions about whether a performance can be adequately rendered in pixelized form. When the frame shifts to long shot, though, the limitations of this hybrid halfway-house between animation and live-action soon become apparent, the assorted thanes and swains in Hopkins’ court having all the definition of an extra from Shrek.”

Total Film

“The effects can be spectacular, as with Gollum in Lord Of The Rings. They can also turn expressive human beings into robotic creatures whose responses seem to have been programmed on a time-delay mechanism. If you saw Polar Express, the last film that Zemeckis did using performance capture, you’ll know what I mean.”

Sandra Hall, Sidney Morning Herald, 30th November 2007.

Even those critics who give overwhelmingly positive reviews can’t help taking a pop at the technology’s problem with the human touch. Anthony Quinn of The Independent finds himself resorting to a tortuous pun:

“Whatever the liberties taken, this Beowulf, seen in glorious performance-capture 3D at the Imax, makes for rip-roaring entertainment. There’s plenty of campery, inevitable when you have Anthony Hopkins and John Malkovich in the voice cast, but for all the ham-inatronic moments, it looks terrific.”

Anthony Quinn, The Independent, 16th November 2007.

I don’t want to posit these views as just petulant whining, as if the critics represent spoilt children at Christmas whose new toy isn’t exactly what they wanted, but rather as an indication that a sort of micro-spectacle adheres to the viewing of CGI cinema: the spectacular emphasis is not just on scale and sweep, but on the particulate minutiae within the frame. The frequent references to robots and automata might have been a way of recovering the film within a long history of human simulacra and technological performance, but instead they refer to “lifeless” figures with “dead eyes.”

There are, of course, significant alterations to the original story. Zemeckis’ Beowulf does not kill Grendel’s mother, but instead allows himself to be seduced into impregnating her (there’s quite a big difference), fathering the dragon that provides the fatal battle of the finale. Beowulf is played at all ages by Ray Winstone, who also plays the jester impersonating Beowulf, and the dragon he sires with Grendel’s mother. A human presence thus haunts the movements and visages of these figures, never fully visible but fleetingly detectible. This may be an analogy for how we experience a relationship with a fictional character, imaginatively inhabiting them with our own unshakeable trace. The hero is undermined by making him the cause of disaster, an arrogant fabulist, concerned with his legacy and the songs that will be sung about him (he doesn’t quite express a desire for a fancy cartoon to one day tell his story, but the self-reflexivity is laid on pretty thick), so the liberties taken can be seen to posit the original text as the mythology which the film will disambiguate by filling in the gaps that were not recorded by oral history. If earlier versions of the story printed the legend, Zemeckis (and screenwriters Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary) seems to promise, this adaptation will reveal the flawed narcissist behind the mythical warrior. By doing so, they make explicit what undergraduates have been doing for years – sympathy for the monsters and suspicion of the narrator.

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8 thoughts on “I. Am. Beowulf… Or am I?

  1. One of the things I love about this blog – I mean, aside from engaging text – is the screen grabs. I think you should put them on flickr, too.

    Love them!

    (Or do I? ;-) )

  2. Glad you like the screen grabs. I like to read films primarily through what you can see on the screen, at least as far as blogging goes. There isn’t always time for extensive research…

    Crispin Glover did the movements for Grendel, too, and they built the character around him. He has a history with Robert Zemeckis: they hated working together on Back to the Future, and Glover sued the producers when they cast a lookalike to fill his role in the sequels. I forget how that one turned out.

  3. Hang on a minute – ‘images of drunken rutting, belching rambunctiousness’?

    So there are acts of ‘drunken rutting’ followed by ‘belching rambunctiousness’? Please clarify – I might have to watch this after all.

    (Apologies in advance for such a puerile and utterly insubstantial comment.)

  4. Puerility is not a problem.

    ‘images of drunken rutting, belching rambunctiousness’ – that’s what it says on the BBFC consumer advice….. just kidding. Maybe I overplayed it: this is a 12 certificate movie after all (although the violence is very strong, and the beating Grendel takes is (deliberately) upsetting at times), and all of the rutting is offscreen. It’s lusty and debauched enough to warrant some old-fashioned vocabulary, and it had been a long time since I used the word “rambunctiousness”. But it ain’t ‘Porky’s’. I guess my point was that the prominence of bodily appetites is as crucial to the acceptance of the CG figures as any efforts at realistic skin tones. It’s totally overblown, and features the dodgiest collection of wobbly accents since Cold Mountain, but I found it surprisingly interesting for what it does to turn the original story on its head.

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