Friday, November 16, 2007

B.O. Wulf


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.

24 comments:

idragosani said...

I can't handle a fully mocapped movie... mocap is useful for blending CG characters with live action (like Gollum), but a fully captured movie? It's way beyond the overuse of rotoscoping in some of Bakshi's work in the late 70s.

I personally love location work -- it's what really gave the early Star Wars movies their life, as well as sword and sorcery films like 'Excalibur' and 'Conan'.

I think this movie (which I have not seen yet, just the trailers) would have worked better as either live action driven by real performances (even Ahnold's Conan seems to have more live than the CG characters in this one), or as a stylized 2D animation -- there was so much that could have been done there, using styles inspired by the Bayeux tapestry and similar medieval artwork.

Michael Sporn said...

Bravo. An excellent review. I've read over 20 different translations of Beowulf and don't remember any of them depicting Grendel's mother as wearing high heeled shoes and/or looking beautiful!

Last night I saw Noah Baumbach's imperfect new film Margot at the Wedding. The joy of the film was in watching the actors interact with each other and their environment. You're absolutely correct about the location being important to an acting performance. The same is true of costume. Imagine if a real actor had performed the battle live and naked. It would have been performed completely differently.

Beyond this all, why does a MoCap film cost $150 million? Why do it?

Kris said...

Beowulf seems like it could be fun as a gimmicky 3D-glasses action movie. I certainly wouldn't go into it expecting it to be seriously good (I mean honestly the thing looks like a video game cutscene), but I think maybe "fun" is the right word.

I would like if Hollywood made a GOOD movie based on an ancient epic but really, no one expects that to happen. The kind of guy who can get the necessary budgets has no interest in the history or subtle performances.

warren said...

I would like if Hollywood made a GOOD movie based on an ancient epic but really, no one expects that to happen.

"Grendel" was pretty decent. You should check that out. It handles Beowulf's ambivalence a little heavy-handedly, but it's an honest attempt. Don't know if it qualifies as 'hollywood'...

Mark, I know you think this movie is crap, but comparing this film to those you cited as examples is strange. Nothing will hold a candle to those, especially not a movie that looks to be an awkward mix of 'Captain Eo' and 'Troy'. It's like comparing the remake of a live-action 'Fat Albert' to 'Roots'.

I like Neil Gaiman's writing, but it'd be interesting to see how mangled it got via the studio system, time constraints and star-f*@#ing.

I agree with you on the location bits and the overinflated sense of self-importance this film has garnered. I'd still like to see what Steven Spielberg is gonna do with it. I think he's still is a great storyteller. I hope he puts this technology to better use....until at least, Pixar shows everyone how it's done.

Could you imagine Brad Bird driving that train?

I still have some hope for this mashup of technology. It reminds of when 3D first showed up and everything was chrome panthers running on glass. Total crap is part of the evolution until more inspired and capable hands come along. In the meantime, we get this...

Mark Mayerson said...

Warren, the fact that a director with more than 3 decades experience could make such a bad film is disheartening. Those films I mentioned (and many others) should be known to Zemeckis. The comparisons may be eclectic, but everything I saw in Beowulf I've seen done better elsewhere. It doesn't appear to me that Zemeckis aspired to anything more than playing with the technology, which is why the film is so empty.

Film makers and audiences are too interested in technique and not interested enough in story and character. The truth is that story and character are actually harder to do right than solving technical problems. Hollywood's answer to any problem has always been new technology and/or higher budgets. That doesn't lead to films that grow, it leads to films that inflate.

Anonymous said...

"Beowulf" shares at least one peculiarity with the George Stevens classic "Shane": the gymnastic staging done to hide genitalia in the former was done (albeit with more taste) to camouflage the fact that the leading man was about three feet tall in the saloon confrontation in the latter.

Spillz said...

Well said, i couldn't wait to see your opinion!

Scott said...

Now, slow down there…

Nowhere have you mentioned that Robert Zemeckis did not author the actual script, and was pretty much a director for hire on this project. You can discuss the flaws in his direction, fine, but when getting into the actual material, text, and subtext (or lack there of) make sure you’re pointing fingers at the right people… the screenwriters.

Your review came off as quite contemptuous in regard to Zemeckis and one may question the true nature of the writing, and its agenda.

Michael Sporn said...

Scott, Zemeckis may have been a "director for hire" but he hired himself. He was also the producer and the one who initiated the project. He's the only one to blame for making this sloppy film. It was just a convenient story for using the MoCap technology; he has no other real interest in it. It's the same guy who did "Death Becomes Her."

Jorge Garrido said...

I was talking to a friend of mine about this film and he was raving about how good the "graphics" were, like it was a video game.

Deke said...

I work more on the vfx side of things but all my hardcore animator friends have been so die hard against this movie before they even saw a clip from it that it makes them totally blind to the movie as a whole. This is so obvious from your assesment of Bob being a "second rate director". You only name his less successful movie "death becomes her" and slyly forget to mention the other 10 highly rated, highly successfull movies like Forest Gump, Back to the Future, What Lies Beneath, Cast Away, etc...

I haven't even seen the movie but especially with your previous rants about motion capture, it is hard to take a review like this to heart.

Mark Mayerson said...

Deke, while I called Zemeckis 2nd rate, for the record I never mentioned any of Zemeckis's previous films.

I admit to not being a fan of his work. The films of his that I've seen all seem to be built around gimmicks. Roger Rabbit is built on animation as if it's part of the real world, Back to the Future on time travel paradoxes, Cast Away on having a single actor on screen for most of the film, Forest Gump on mixing actors with historical footage. His latest gimmick is mocap. It strikes me that Zemeckis can't get interested in a script unless there is some sort of challenge beyond just the story and characters. I consider that a weakness because often the gimmick overwhelms the rest of the film. I think that's the case with Beowulf.

I admit to being no fan of motion capture and I won't apologize for that. If that disqualifies my views as hopelessly biased, so be it, but my criticism of the film was not restricted to the quality of motion capture. I found Zemeckis' use of the camera to be ridiculous and would think so even if this film was keyframed. My complaints about the thin characterization would also stand if this film was keyframed or live action.

Deke said...

oh woops, death becomes her was someone elses comment.

Anyways, Ill have to see for myself when I see the movie tonight.

Thad K said...

I absolutely love the title for this review!!!

As for Zemeckis' other films... Well, I like ROGER RABBIT an BACK TO THE FUTURE, but FOREST GUMP just glorifies stupidity, a far greater crime than what's being one with B.O. Wulf.

Bill Drastal Blog Mode!! said...

Its always nice to see how the bottom line is effecting the way movies are being made. I always thought that Zemeckis was just striving for realisim, but I think your assertion that its more about his desire for more control and saving money is probably way more accurate.

Nancy said...

No, mocap should not be counted as an animated film. Mocap is live action. Real actors are not animation. Animation is created by artists, not actors.
Time to revamp the Academy rules again....as it turned out, one film in the competition screening was ruled ineligible on Saturday for what could be a similar reason.

Chuck R. said...

Mark, I think you need to define gimmick:

Roger Rabbit was based largely on a gimmick, but it was still a winsome homage to animation's golden age even if the characters all lacked depth.

Back To The Future is an almost flawless film. Time travel is a premise or a genre, not a gimmick, and it took back seat to character development and story.

Forest Gump had gimmicks inserted, but it was the overused baby boomer nostalgia that ruined that one for me.

Cast Away was a decent film and character study that happened to have a one-man cast. A conceit maybe, but not a gimmick.

warren said...

Those films I mentioned (and many others) should be known to Zemeckis. The comparisons may be eclectic, but everything I saw in Beowulf I've seen done better elsewhere.

That's my point, Mark.

Everything you see is better elsewhere because 'Beowulf' is a no-art film from the start, aiming at the average action/D&D/sci-fi/gaming fan. Ergo, slamming it for not being a dramatic masterpiece is strange. It's like wondering why 'Bob the Builder' isn't the same as 'Hill Street Blues'. Different values in priority from the get-go.

The truth is that story and character are actually harder to do right than solving technical problems. Hollywood's answer to any problem has always been new technology and/or higher budgets.

I %100 agree. BUT, if this tech was used properly, by fantastic storytellers, the results could less disastrous, maybe even good. It's just tech, not art. But in the right hands, it could be.

It's definitely not as advanced as animation as an expressive media. Give it some time, and we'll see if it stays.

I'll be seriously ticked if it's lumped in with animation for the Oscars. Those regs need some serious evaluation if it is.

Anonymous said...

"Everything you see is better elsewhere because 'Beowulf' is a no-art film from the start, aiming at the average action/D&D/sci-fi/gaming fan. Ergo, slamming it for not being a dramatic masterpiece is strange. It's like wondering why 'Bob the Builder' isn't the same as 'Hill Street Blues'. Different values in priority from the get-go."

Well said. I think there are times when fans of a certain medium/style/etc can get a little holier than thou when it comes to these types of movies and we as animation fans are no different. I honestly try my best to separate myself from my prejudices when I see a film and honestly I think it works out better for me in the long run. So when I saw Beowulf last night, I was pretty happy with it. Was it filled with great animation or a flawless story? No it wasn't but the video game playing and fantasy novel reading side of me got a kick out of it.
To me this review sounded no different than those of the arrogant film student critics from the local paper with whom I've never agreed and who laces his review with language that almost tries to make you feel guilty for even entertaining the chance of liking the film in question.

Mark Mayerson said...

Anonymous, if I came off as arrogant, I'm sorry. That wasn't my intention. Believe it or not, bad films upset me and that upset spilled over into the review. In retrospect, I think the review is too strident and I would rewrite it, but that's due to my language and not because I think any better of the film.

I have nothing against pure entertainment. What I don't like is pure entertainment that
pretends to be something more. This film's theme is the danger of unrestrained sexual urges to individuals and to the larger community. That's what creates the threats in this film. But the film doesn't deal with the repercussions of this theme in terms of the characters. Instead, it just gives you a big fight at the end between Beowulf and the dragon. Had the film stuck purely to action adventure, I might have been bored but I wouldn't have been disappointed. The film itself raised expectations that it didn't deliver on, and that's my main complaint.

Anonymous said...

"Anonymous, if I came off as arrogant, I'm sorry. That wasn't my intention. Believe it or not, bad films upset me and that upset spilled over into the review. In retrospect, I think the review is too strident and I would rewrite it, but that's due to my language and not because I think any better of the film.

I have nothing against pure entertainment. What I don't like is pure entertainment that
pretends to be something more. This film's theme is the danger of unrestrained sexual urges to individuals and to the larger community. That's what creates the threats in this film. But the film doesn't deal with the repercussions of this theme in terms of the characters. Instead, it just gives you a big fight at the end between Beowulf and the dragon. Had the film stuck purely to action adventure, I might have been bored but I wouldn't have been disappointed. The film itself raised expectations that it didn't deliver on, and that's my main complaint."


Very well said. That comment is a great review in itself. I see where you're coming from now. I still enjoyed it on a base level but I do wish it delivered a lot more.

Jean-Denis Haas said...

But at what point did Zemeckis or anybody else say that the movie is striving for more than pure entertainment?

The moment you see Grendel's mother with high heels, it shows you how serious Zemeckis is about this movie.

I didn't expect more than pop-corn fun that you forget once you're done with it (although what I keep thinking about is Winstone's voice, I really liked it). The quality was too inconsistent for me in order to really have liked the movie, but it was still entertaining.

You can't fault a movie because of your expectations.

hansgrotz said...

I used to like Zemeckis,myself.He did films that really entertain me (Roger Rabbit,Back to the Furute,Forest Gump),but after "Polar Express" i got very "afraid of" what he would do.

Anonymous said...

http://www.truebones.com

Here is a good site for mocap related resources and even some free motion capture in bvh format.

Cheers