It's impossible to review Beowulf without mentioning the
technology behind it. The film is directed by Robert Zemeckis and employs the
same motion-captured blend of computer animation and live actors that was used
in his prior film Polar Express. On top of that, it uses new digital technology
to create the illusion of three dimensions when viewed through special polarized
glasses. These two technologies work together to at once create a film that is
fascinating to watch as well as one that is equally disconcerting.
The use of digitally enhanced motion capture gives the
characters in the film the look of computer animated models along the lines of
those seen in Polar Express or Shrek. The effect is more pronounced with the
background characters than those in the forefront of a scene, but it is still
strong enough to make you constantly aware that the characters on the screen are
not real. While some of the special effects are pretty impressive, simple
actions and movements such as riding horses come across as strangely unnatural.
It can be distracting because it constantly takes you out of the illusion that
you are watching real events unfold in front of you. I can't help but think that
the film would have been a far more enjoyable and immersive experience if it had
stuck with human actors and just left the special effects to the computers.
As for the 3D, thankfully the movie only occasionally resorts to
cheap effects such as poking the audience with swords and arrows, because the 3D
is pretty impressive overall. The depth of view in sweeping vistas and even in
the confines of a dining hall are amazing, and you'll find yourself wishing that
the camera would linger on these scenes for just a little while longer. Scenes
in the outdoors that open with the camera at ground level and then raise it
slowly are particularly impressive and make you feel like you are actually there
taking in the view. A word of warning to those of you prone to motion sickness,
though; some of the camera flybys may make you a little dizzy, particularly if
you see the film in IMAX.
While you can occasionally see a little ghosting of the image
and background action tends to exhibit motion blur, for the most part the action
is greatly enhanced by the 3D technology. The 3D in Beowulf feels less like a
gimmick and more of a way to enhance your experience and to bring you into the
story. Once again I have to say that it is a shame that so much of the movie is
rendered by computer. I would have loved to see what it would have looked like
to sit at a table in a Danish dining hall with real warriors instead of feeling
like I was watching a 3D videogame cutscene.
Ah yes, there is indeed a story behind all of this technology,
and as the title suggests it is based on the epic Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf. Some
liberties have been taken with the story, but I don't think that anyone outside
of English majors will mind that the action in the poem has been brought to the
forefront and tied more closely together. The embellishments to the story do
work well enough, but the dialog is certainly closer to what you'd find in a
comic book or summer action movie than in an epic poem. This movie is nowhere
near as epic as, say, The Lord of the Rings, but with a healthy suspension of
disbelief and a willingness to accept it for what it is it does well enough.
However the shallowness of the characters and their not quite human appearance
work against it in forming any kind of emotional connection with the viewer. You
should consider seeing the movie in a theater simply to experience the 3D and
special effects - the movie's climactic battle between Beowulf and a golden
dragon is particularly impressive - but I doubt that it will be a movie that you
find yourself watching time and again at home on DVD.