Monday, March 19, 2012

Back to the Beowulf

Robert Zemeckis has had a strange career. Starting out making low-budget oddities like I Want to Hold Your Hand and Used Cars, he was on the verge of being kicked out of Hollywood (figuratively speaking, of course) when Steven Spielberg (at the height of his commercial and artistic power) decided to produce yet another of Zemeckis' and writing partner Bob Gale's quirky B-movie ideas - this one about a time machine built into a car. Back to the Future went on to be the biggest box office hits of 1985 and was followed in 1987 with what is arguably Zemeckis' masterpiece - Who Framed Roger Rabbit - the first film to successfully blend live-action actors with animated characters (cell paintings, as opposed to CGI) in a real-world environment.

Two Back the the Future sequels and one CGI showcase - Death Becomes Her -  later, Tom Hanks and Oscar glory beckoned. Post-Gump Zemeckis found a new sandbox and via the 'miracle' of CGI performance capture cast Tom Hanks as every man and his dog in fun-for-all-the-family action-adventure The Polar Express (2004).

That brief sojourn through time brings us to 2007 and the realisation of a long-in-gestation Hollywood adaptation of the Norse myth of Beowulf. Once again using CGI performance capture, Beowulf does not descend as deeply into the Uncanny Valley as its forebear, The Polar Express, but the character models are still slightly Crash Test Dummy. Anthony Hopkins is recognisable as King Hrothgar and Crispin Glover is perfectly cast as the monster Grendel, but Ray Winstone is tasked with giving voice to a mannequin that far more closely resembles Sean Bean, while Angelina Jolie's non-specific Continental European accent is never less than distracting.

The film's trump card is the fact that at least some of the sense of Myth and Heroes survives the  adaptation of the Epic Poem for a modern cinema audience. The attempts to portray Beowulf as a flawed man ring hollow, but the fantastical threat of Sea Monsters at The Edge of the World tap into Mankind's primal fears and desires in a way that even Hollywood executives and CGI cannot entirely erase.

At the other end of the scale, one laugh-out-loud funny fight scene that depicts our hero, Beowulf, starkers, dancing between chalices, goblets and dismembered limbs to hide his shame, calls to mind a 5th century Austin Powers - 'yeah, baby!' - hardly the stuff of Legend.

The film zips along and is enjoyable enough, but it does come anywhere near evoking the portentous power of an ancient poem that has survived for centuries. Zemeckis did a better job making people believe that a if a Delorean were to ever reach 88 MPH it would travel through time. 'Great Scott!'


Post a Comment

<< Home