Before underdressed CGI blue cat people fought “the man” in 3D and made a billion dollars, another underdressed CGI hero fought against “the woman” in 3D and barely managed a profit worldwide. Despite its underwhelming box office, this movie inspired by an ancient Anglo-Saxon poem is the more interesting of the two. Gory, boisterous, beautiful, and dark, it was hampered by trying to be both a meditation on human frailty and a popcorn action flick. UPDATED June 2013 with Blu-ray details and HD screen captures.
In those forgotten days before television, before movies, before radio, and yes even before comic books, heroic tales still circulated. Traveling bards who could recite great tales were highly valued and the superstars of their day. Committed to memory, countless tales that thrilled audiences of the past have been lost. But a few lasted long enough to be transcribed to paper and Beowulf is the oldest in the English culture.
If you are a dedicated fan and purist about the heroic poem, please stop reading here. It will save you time wailing and gnashing your teeth – besides, Grendel of the movie is much better at doing both of those. This movie is more of an “inspired by” story than an adaptation.
Set in 6th Century Denmark, the film begins with with chanting driven orchestral music (composed by veteran Alan Silvestri) and the main title flashing on screen. In 3D at the theater, it looked very good I must say. Quickly the title fades and we are presented with an ornate golden horn drinking cup featuring a dragon. It is apparent that we are supposed to pay attention to this object and I recall thinking “It’s a plot device!”
As the camera pans up, we are introduced to our first look at how the all CGI film renders humans. A very pretty and regal looking Nordic lady is holding the cup during its filling, all the while looking none too happy to be doing so. Soon we find out why and her identity.
Her name is Wealthow (Robin Wright-Penn) and she is the wife of King Hrothgar (Anthony Hopkins), a drunken old man having a debauched revel in his mead hall. Amazingly, the CGI model looks a great deal like Hopkins. Alas, we see far too much of Hrothgar when his robe nearly slides off.
The revelry is all crude and reflects the culture of the time and location. This was not an era of knights and ladies practicing refined manners. Instead, it was a boisterous and lewd era of might makes right. Morals are not merely absent, for sleazy and rapacious behavior is actually praised and rewarded.
In the midst of all the drunken conversations, one is paid particular attention and it involves the king’s right hand man, Unferth (John Malkovitch). Weasel-like in looks, the apparent villain is talking about the new Roman religion with another drunk while relieving themselves publicly.
Back to Wealthow, for she is not happy with the behavior on display and spurns Hrothgar’s amorous advances. Much younger than her husband, it is obvious he repulses her. It also turns out she is not alone in being unhappy with the loud party.
A nice series of scenes follow a rat from the rafters of the mead hall to its demise at the hands of a hawk and that predator flying off with the rodent in its talons. It is a clever visual bridging device taking us outside to see the hall and how far it is from a cave in the hills. There a misshapen creature with a huge exposed eardrum is tormented by the sounds of revelry from far off.
Yeah, I understand having to deal with neighbors who crank their stereos up too high and have loud company over. But when you live miles away? Just a wee bit extreme to go knock on their door. However, that is exactly what Grendel (Crispin Glover) does. Of course he is twelve feet tall and a demon, so the effect is rather more dramatic. There have been times I wish I could knock on doors and make them explode, but that’s life.
The party crashing is a very intense series of quick cut scenes and is executed like a horror movie. It begins with the hearth flames turning from orange to blue while a dog growls sensing someone is at the door. From the frightened and stunned expressions of the hall occupants to the blazingly fast attacks by the monster, it is an amazing and very gory depiction of what it is like to be completely helpless before a foe. Grendel is a pain wracked force of supernature, flinging Vikings left and right like ragdolls. I’ll note that the Director’s Cut included more blood and gore, most of which are from this battle – if you can even call the one sided affair a battle.
With the drunks routed, the enraged and deformed creature finds himself face to face with Hrothgar. Strangely subdued in his anger, the king demands the monster face him. A tense face off ends with Grendel jumping away into the flames of the central fire and vanishing up through the roof. The lighting fades from blue to darkness before a torch is lit by a man to show the damage.
The aftermath is sobering for both the survivors and the audience. Calm shock replaces the terror and we get to see what happens to both sides. Yet it is Grendel’s return home to the water logged cave that captures the imagination. Very darkly lit, we see the monster carrying two dead Danes like rabbits brought home from a hunt. A woman’s voice rises from the waters to chastise him for killing and eating humans, for she had forbidden it.
Replying in Old English (no subtitles), Grendel sounds like a child and his mental capacity seems to be that of a simpleton. It is also apparent that he is in constant pain and defiant about what he did despite what his mother (Angelina Jolie) thinks. Still, she continues to lecture him gently while comforting him so he can sleep. Hints of her appearance are shown, so keep your eyes peeled.
Meanwhile, the Danes clear bodies out of the mead hall, which Hrothgar orders permanently sealed. Unferth suggests praying to the various gods and possibly the new one, Jesus Christ. The skeptical king refuses and says the gods will not help and what they really need is a hero.
Cue the first appearance of Beowulf (Ray Winstone) captaining a longship through storm tossed waves. Oddly enough, my random playlist just presented “The Immigrant Song” by Led Zeppelin, which would have been perfect for the scene. To call it macho would be an understatement with Beowulf and his second-in-command Wiglaf (Brendan Gleeson) sharing an easy rapport like jocks on a team.
The ship of Geats (Swedes) lands on shore and are greeted by a shore watchman. Greetings of the era entail sticking a spear in Beowulf’s face in a shameless example of overusing 3D effects. It is far worse than the paddleball in House of Wax way back in the 1950s. Even in 2D it gives me a headache. There are multiple instances of things being shoved in your face crying out, “look at me!”
Yes, I am not a big fan of 3D. In fact, the movie looks better in 2D due to all the loving detail in the backgrounds being more visible and the colors not suffering from the dimming involved in the polarizing process. Make no mistake about it, Beowulf is a gorgeous film that looks like fantasy paintings brought into full motion. If you don’t look at it as trying to reproduce reality, but as artwork instead I think you will appreciate it more.
Beowulf finds a decidedly mixed reception to his arrival with a warm welcome from his father’s friend Hrothgar, a prickly sizing up from Wealthow, and outright hostility from a very drunk Unferth. While many were lured to the cinemas to see the action, it was the character development that got my attention. Some really solid acting is on display beginning with the interaction of the charismatic, but sometimes slow on the uptake, Beowulf with everyone around him.
One of the biggest traits of primitive cultures in Northern Europe was the high value places on lying. The more creative and exaggerated the tall tale, the more intelligent the braggart was considered. This is on full display with the title character’s story about a swimming race he lost and why he lost it. Pay particular attention to the discrepancy between what he says and what he remembers at the end about the final monster. Besides being some excellent acting, there is more to it…
Having arrived to dispatch the monster heard about across all the Viking lands, the Geats prepare with a feast in mead hall. Soon a problem develops with the crew chasing skirts and a rather irate Wiglaf tries to ride herd on the unruly warriors. It does not help that his leader won’t stop staring at Queen Wealthow. This does not go unnoticed by King Hrothgar, but his reaction is decidedly odd.
Of course all this commotion brings out the monstrous Grendel to lodge another noise complaint. Greeting him is a completely naked Beowulf, who stripped in front of Wealthow in one of the clumsiest, but successful flirtations put on screen. His sense of honor demands that he use no weapon or armor since the monster does not. A tremendous fight follows that puts Austin Powers to shame in trickily hiding the nudity with objects and lighting. The fight itself is not bad at all, reminding me of a more violent version of an Errol Flynn battle from yesteryear.
As horrible as Grendel is in eating his opponents, the real monster of the sequence is revealed to be an arrogant and unstoppable hero. His intimidation of the twisted creature is more frightening than half of what Grendel has done. Winstone conveys absolute power, self confidence, and ferocity in a way that makes you feel sorry for the demon.
Mortally wounded, Grendel somehow makes it back to the cave he shares with his mother. Her grief leads to the death of all of the Geats except Beowulf and Wiglaf, who confront the increasingly evasive Hrothgar about just what is going on. Half truths and dissembling follow, with the bitterness and revulsion the Danish king’s wife being caused by a very nasty secret not fully admitted to.
Faced with the prospect of having yet another demon to kill, Beowulf is unsure of what to do and more than a little ticked off. A fascinating moment comes when Unferth arrives to apologize to the hero and offer his father’s sword to be used in slaying Grendel’s mother. He has gone from bitter resentment to hero worship since he now believes that Beowulf is everything he claimed to be. It is an uncomfortable moment for the Geat that pushes him into taking on Grendel’s mother in her lair.
And oh what a lair it is. Gold and treasure abound, piled high and encrusting even the roof of the cave. It is one of the prettiest settings in the film and watching the apprehensive Viking warrior wade through the darkness shows off the talent involved in the artistic design of the production. Watch for flashes of movement and you will be rewarded.
Not all that glitters is gold, even if the beautiful woman that emerges from the water appears to be made of it. Grendel’s mother is very creepy despite her nearly nude appearance, or perhaps because of it. What is real and not quickly becomes murky for Beowulf and she makes him an offer of power and wealth that he finds even more seductive than her appearance. Despite being the last of her kind and desperate, it is clear that she is in control of the situation.
By the way, that is not Jolie’s body. They scanned in the body of a bikini and lingerie model named Rachel Bernstein to stand in for her. Even the CGI is faked in Hollywood!
The decision that Beowulf makes starts a domino effect that exposes a dark secret, gains him a kingdom, and changes his life. Heavy is the head that wears the crown and the story diverges from the original heroic poem the most starting here. A jump in time reveals how his choices lead him to a life he never planned for. Actions have consequences and his are about to haunt him – along with those he cares for. The age of heroes has ended and a new era brought in by Christianity has begun.
The story takes a lot of liberties with the original poem, especially with how Beowulf’s youth and old age are bridged. Locations are changed and so are some of the characters. Wiglaf was a youth in the original material, not a middle aged veteran for one example. This is a creative retelling so do not expect historical accuracy out of it. Two examples: Christianity did not arrive until the height of the Viking age around 900-1000 AD and Vinland wasn’t discovered until the end of that period.
With that disclaimer out of the way, on to to the movie itself.
My father and I saw this in a theater in order to check out the “new 3D” that was just beginning to hit theaters. We expected spectacle, but what we did not expect was the tragic drama that pervaded the film. It is not a condescending film and not once did I feel like my intelligence had been insulted – 3D objects being thrust in my face aside. By the way, the DVD is actually my dad’s, he bought it used. He does not buy many movies at all and you could count them on one hand.
Robert Zemeckis has pursued a dream of making all computer animated films featuring realistic humans for some time with Polar Express being his biggest success. Always fascinated with special effects, he has specialized in making well received films that make heavy use of them. Beowulf was made to push the limits of the current technology and usher in a new age of film making. While it failed to do that, it was only a little ahead of its time and even Avatar has not caused a boom in motion capture based movie making.
Since this is an all CGI film, the animation needs mentioning. It is very fluid, but almost too fluid in places. The uncanny divide is still there, but it is reduced compared to earlier efforts like Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within or The Polar Express. The slower, more emotional scenes are the most convincing. To me, that is very impressive since that used to be the weak point in such films.
I tend to really like or really dislike the films Zemeckis directs and I think this is one of his better efforts. It is no Castaway, but when the film slows down and deals with the characters interacting with each other, it gets close. It does not hurt that he assembled a very good cast that actually got to physically act out the roles through motion capture, not just voice them.
Beowulf is an adult film and by that I do not mean the rating or the sexuality and violence in it. At its core it is about bitter regrets, failed relationships, the burdens of responsibility, and how lies can destroy things. There is a melancholic aura enveloping the entire third act, with the characters being all too human in their flaws. They are believably real in that way, despite all the superhuman combat that fills the rest of the movie. You need to have some age on you to appreciate it fully.
As to the actual rating, this release in DVD and Blu-ray is unrated, but would have been a soft R since it restores the CGI blood and violence trimmed to get the theatrical release a PG-13. I would prefer a theatrical disc myself, but this is how it was put out. There is no actual full frontal or topless nudity since everything is either obscured or rendered featureless. You do see some backsides though. Plenty of crude behavior and sexual references are made, reflecting the society of the time, but there is little in the way of profanity. In no way or form should small kids see this film, the content is only suitable for teens and up.
I recommend it fans of the poem who can handle a reinterpretation of the material, those interested in the Viking age, and people who like action films to have some depth to them. Technology and movie buffs should also check it out, as should lovers of fantasy art. Kids should be kept as far away from it as possible.
This review is of the 2008 Paramount DVD and Blu-ray release which is the 114 minute Director’s Cut.
The video is anamorphic widescreen in an ostensibly 2.35:1 ratio, but closer to 2.32:1. Visual quality of the transfer is excellent and as good as DVD gets thanks to its all digital origins. Colors are vibrant while the contrast is very finely tuned. There are a lot of dark scenes in the film that make use of creative lighting and this disc delivers them well. On Blu-ray, it is even better and nary a flaw can be seen.
Audio is also very good with full use of Dolby 5.1 Surround Sound in English, French, and Spanish on the DVD. Subtitles for all three languages are available. Only the English track is in Dolby TrueHD on the Blu-ray with the other languages being the same quality as the DVD. Given the wider soundstage and uncompressed audio the BD sounds as spectacular as it looks.
Special Features are plenteous and entertaining:
A Hero’s Journey: The Making of Beowulf – A 23 minute documentary that goes behind the scenes of making the movie starting on day one. It follows director Zemeckis and others around during production. The amount of effort that went into the movie is impressive and what intrigued me the most was the work put into showing the actors what things would look like. Scale models, concept art, and finally dressing each actor in real life versions of their digital clothing helped them envision the world they could not see. Acting to empty sets has had mixed results in the past, for instance the Star Wars prequels had good actors delivering terrible performances.
The motion capture suits and the pain involved in getting tracking dots applied to the actors’ faces did not look like much fun. But the results were clearly worth the effort with everything recorded in 3D space so that any camera angle was possible to render. It is amusing that a camera remote control was built to mimic moving a real one. The technology is fascinating, but I do not think it is the future of cinema. It will have a home for performances such as Andy Serkis playing Gollum in the Tolkien movie adaptations, though.
Beasts of Burden: Designing the Creatures of Beowulf -- A six minute plus look at the creation of the monsters in the film from concept to modeling. The why’s of how they look are explained in detail and is a must see to explains some unexplained things in the movie. A lot of thought went into the designs beyond the coolness factor.
The Origin of Beowulf – Five minutes with the writers of the movie, Steve Avery and Neil Gaiman, mostly the latter. Here it is revealed why so much was changed from the poem with the idea that they were reconstructing lost parts of it. It is an interesting supposition they have made, in my opinion.
Creating the Ultimate Beowulf – This is a look at why they cast Winstone as Beowulf and how the appearance of the actor did not have to be a deciding factor anymore. Finding someone who looked like what they envisioned and who could act was simply not possible. Since Ray looks nothing like the main character, it is pretty amazing how believable it all appeared.
The Art of Beowulf – A short on Doug Chiang, the art director whose paintings defined the look of the entire film. Superb stuff by a very talented artist.
Deleted Scenes – Six scenes in various levels of crude rendering that were cut from the film for length and flow considerations. Most of them have to do with the romance between Beowulf and Wealthow and they do not show him in a flattering light at all. Even more scenes can be found on the Blu-ray edition.
Theatrical Trailer – It is what it says it is.
The Blu-ray presents all of this in 1080p rather than taking the cheap way out with 480i. It also has more extras including an enhanced version of A Hero’s Journey that allows you to select extended looks at topics when the crown medallion flashes on screen. These can be found separately as The Journey Continues in the menu.
A Conversation with Robert Zemeckis concludes the Blu-ray goodies and is a question and answer session conducted at USC after the first 3D screening of the movie.
BEWARE! HERE BE SPOILERS!!!
The return of that accursed Dragon Cup. The cup is as much a star in the movie as any of the characters and it never bodes well when it is present. It is a harbinger of doom and a symbol of ill gotten gain.Wealthow’s smirking reaction to it shows just how much she has come to resent her philandering husband, Beowulf. She is also shown to be a devout convert to the newly arrived religion and manages to be a better one than the thane.
For a supposed Christian, Unferth is horrifically abusive of his slave. I take this is meant to show Christians as hypocrites since he appears to be a priest now, but all it did for me is show what a messed up a person he is.
The attack on the village looks straight out of a painting when we see it from where Wealthow and the slave girl Ursula (Alison Lohman) are standing on the castle walls. It transitions to panicked villagers fleeing and a badly burned Unferth trying to ward the demon off with a cross. Ordered to bear a message to Beowulf, the very bitter priest does relay it: “Sins of the father!” It is very dramatic since the respect for his hero has gone up in flames along with his family.
The last conversation between Beowulf and his estranged wife, Wealthow, is poignant to say the least. The brash hero has been humbled by time and the appearance of the worst mistake of his life. While they do say they still love each other, it is from two sides of an unbridgeable emotional divide. Wealthow is simply too good for him and her taking her husband’s lover under her wing at the end shows what kind of person she is.
The entire fight with the dragon is spectacular from start to bloody finish. Having gone to return the dragon cup to Grendel’s mother, Beowulf finds himself face to face with their son, a gigantic dragon also played by Ray Winstone through motion capture. I couldn’t help but think the underwater sequence was inspired by later Godzilla movies, for some of the imagery looked awfully familiar.
Remember when I mentioned the mermaid earlier? Take a look at the dragon’s tail. It is the same as the mermaid’s. In the extras, it is revealed that the mermaid was Grendel’s mother! Beowulf never had a clue about that and so he twice lied about killing her to cover up his lustful actions.
The final part of the fight with the dragon is gruesome in many ways. Finally accepting his own death, Beowulf mutilates himself horribly to save the two women who love him. At last he finally becomes truly heroic just before the end.
Having fallen to their deaths, father and son lie next to each other. A spark of life remains in the battered Geat and he reaches out to touch the shoulder of his only child, now turned into a golden man. A single tear from the proud Beowulf contains more grief than a flood of tears would for a regular person. With his passing, the age of heroes has ended.
The kingdom becomes Wiglaf’s to his surprise and sadness. That doughty old warrior is grief stricken from losing his best friend and inheriting the weight of the crown. Beowulf’s funeral is one of the more beautiful things I have seen rendered in a movie with molten fire being poured from a cliff onto the longship his body is on. But a flash of gold in the sand below Wiglaf’s feet and in the air above the burning ship announces further trouble.
The final scene of Beowulf is hauntingly noncommittal. Grendel’s mother has shown up to start the whole cycle again. What will Wiglaf decide? We will never know for sure.
Since fans are meant to speculate for themselves, here is my opinion. I suspect he will resist since he was the sole voice of reason and self control in the story. There is no look of lust or greed on his face, just weariness. For the man who did not want to know anything, he knows far too much. The cycle ends here.