Friday, November 16, 2007
Beowulf is a weak film whose motion capture technique and stereoscopic 3D will distract reviewers and audiences from realizing how empty it is. Director Robert Zemeckis is far more involved with his camera than his characters. Some may mistake Zemeckis use of motion capture as a quest for realism, but it's not. Motion capture is just a way for Zemeckis to exert more control over the film; the problem is that control is a disadvantage in the hands of a second-rate director.
The story is about powerful men who are seduced by evil but who can't admit to their failings. This can be the stuff of great drama, but the film rarely rises beyond a high school production of Macbeth. Instead of Zemeckis burrowing into his characters and providing them with conflicting needs and desires, they succumb all too easily. While they are eventually forced to confront their sins, they never feel the full weight of them.
Zemeckis uses motion capture for two reasons. One is to avoid going on location and the other to give him increased freedom with the camera. Neither reason justifies the effort involved.
Locations inform an actor's performance. Lawrence of Arabia would not be the same film if it was shot on a soundstage, unless you believe that the desert heat, the great expanse and the sand that gets blown into every crevice and orifice did not influence the performances. For all of Zemeckis's obsession with skin pores, body hair and saliva, he hasn't bothered to show the breath of characters when they are standing in the snow.
Zemeckis is more besotted with stereoscopic 3D and a computer animated camera than a first year film student. He can't resist throwing things at the audience or using mile-long camera moves. The camera is constantly calling attention to itself, never more so than in the sequence where Beowulf decides to fight Grendel while naked. Besides being questionable from a tactical standpoint, this results in some of the most contrived camera compositions imaginable. While the audience should be getting emotionally involved in the battle, it's constantly distracted by the ways that Zemeckis uses the camera and props to hide Beowulf's genitals. In one shot, Zemeckis hides them behind a sword stuck in the floor, one of many obvious pieces of sexual symbolism sure to raise snickers from the twelve year olds who are the film's target audience.
While debates about motion capture and the relative success of it in this film will dominate the discussion, it's a pointless argument. Had the technical work been flawless, convincing the audience that they were watching flesh and blood creatures on the screen, it would not compensate for the fact that Beowulf is a colossally dumb movie. The characters are so simplistic, the drama so uninvolving, the direction so crass that no technique could elevate this film beyond mediocrity.
Compare the flight of arrows in this film to that of Olivier's Henry V. Compare the battle scenes with Eisenstein's Alexander Nevsky. Compare the monsters to those in Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings. Compare the complexity of the characters with George Stevens' Shane. In every case, Zemeckis falls short and by a wide margin.
What's going to kill this kind of film making is that reputable actors will avoid it like the plague. Anthony Hopkins and John Malkovich should be horrified with the results. No one will equate their "performances" in Beowulf with films where these actors appear in the flesh. Why would performers concerned with their reputations lend themselves to a process that doesn't present them at their best?
There will be debates as to whether this film is animated or not. Should it be eligible for the Best Animated Film Oscar? Let the debate rage, but I won't bother with it. A film like Beowulf is a waste of time regardless of how you classify it. Technique and novelty are never enough; they're just distractions that eventually lose their appeal. I demand more from movies than skin pores, big camera moves and spears pointed at my nose. A movie should have a heart and a mind, and Beowulf has neither.