2000s, 3/4, Fantasy, Review, Robert Zemeckis

Beowulf

Image result for beowulf 2007 film poster

#7 in my ranking of Robert Zemeckis films.

In the original epic poem, why does Beowulf come back from defeating Grendel’s mother carrying Grendel’s head? It’s an interesting question that has fired literary critics imaginations for a while, and when Robert Zemeckis set out to make his big screen adaptation of the poem, he went beyond merely adapting the text itself. Instead, he took those questions that critics had considered and ran with them dramatically.

So, what we end up having isn’t so much an adaptation of Beowulf, but an adaptation of a master’s thesis on Beowulf.

The movie received mixed to positive reviews when it came out. A lot of the negativity seemed connected to the movie’s visual style. Expanding what he had done on The Polar Express, Zemeckis used motion capture and computer animation to get realistic-ish looking characters. The problem is that the characters exact right in the middle of the Uncanny Valley. They are too real to treat as cartoons, but not real enough to convince the mind that they are real, so there’s a natural barrier that’s created because the brain knows it’s not real despite a somewhat realistic looking appearance. I was more okay with the look of the film upon its initial release, but less so now.

I understand, though, why Zemeckis was enamored with the technique. The freedom as a filmmaker to build the environments he wanted and place the camera wherever he wanted must have been quite enticing. The problem was the effort at getting photo-realistic effects, which end up falling short. A more cartoonish look might have been less jarring for the audience.

Moving on, though, the movie’s approach to the material, as implied, is really smart. It’s not just a monster movie, but an exploration of bravery, heroism, and the costs of power. It takes a different approach than the original poem, but that’s fine by me. The seduction of power, and the literal seduction of Grendel’s mother, is an interesting approach to take, and I think it works really well. Beowulf must sell his soul to achieve power, but when the bill comes due he doesn’t lay down like Hrothgar did. He fights. He reclaims his honor and sense of bravery by having a spectacle infused fight with a dragon. It’s a sop to modern movie convention, but it’s still fun on its own while refusing to undermine the basic point of the story.

Performances, which you mainly need to judge by voices since the faces do have a plastic-like feel that they movie can’t escape, are very good. I can see why Zemeckis wanted to cast Ray Winstone as Beowulf because he carries a gravelly voice that matches the vision of the character perfectly, but Winstone is, at the same time, not a body builder with 8 pack abs. Brendan Gleeson is wonderful as Wiglaf, the sad advisor, Anthony Hopkins is wise, sad, and guilt-ridden as Hrothgar, and Angelina Jolie is pure seduction as Grendel’s mother. Special nod to Crispin Glover as Grendel, speaking Old English and evoking quite a bit of emotion as a monstrous creature with inside out ears.

Netflix Rating: 4/5

Quality Rating: 3/4

5 thoughts on “Beowulf”

  1. Bringing back Grendel’s head was just to prove the guy was dead. No point bringing back Mom’s head.

    I have not seen the movie, but the idea of SexyLakeHag is ludicrous, as a Norse or Saxon story. If we were talking a Russian story, then fine, bring in a vilya — but they usually could not have kids. Sexy trollwomen are not a Norse thing. You might get a sexy giantess, but not underwater. I would believe it more if we were talking underground.

    And it does not get any less silly if you have Neil Gaiman write it. He pulls a lot of this crap, and it is always glaringly obvious that he is throwing together Stuff Modern People Like while pretending he cares about Stuff Medieval People Like. Admit which one you picked, Neil!

    The thing that scares Norse and Saxon heroes is the thing that outwrestled Thor — Old Age, personified as a monstrous little old lady. The Lake Hag is scary because she is all that, plus demonic magic and powers, plus a family grudge. So if you are Norse, making her sexy and young makes her a known quantity that can be easily defeated, whereas being old made her more than a woman, more like a scary Norn or priestess or witch. Or their own grandma who owned the house.

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    1. It’s interesting that you seem compelled to respond about a movie you haven’t seen before. It’s also interesting that you demand an action/adventure movie appeal to either historians or 8th century Scandinavians.

      And, the point of the question at the top isn’t that Beowulf needed to prove that he had killed Grendel. Everyone in the original poem already believed that he had done that, but he came back with a tale of killing Grendel’s mother, but no proof of that. Why no proof of killing this second creature?

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  2. Hollywood can’t do a straight adaptation of Beowulf for two reasons:

    1) The real message of the poem is carried in the blood feuds that are alluded to rather than shown (the Finn-Hengist episode that the scop sings in the hall after the death of Grendel, the allusion to final fate of Hrothgar’s family, and the feud between the) royal houses of the Geats and the Swedes) rather than the monsters. The original poet could expect his audience to know the allusions and recognize the significance in the same way we would recognize an allusion to the rise of the Nazis and WWII in a story set in Europe during the 1930s, whereas to modern audiences they are just a stream of strange names.

    2) The message itself is directly at odds with perhaps the central Myth of modern western culture – the idea of Progress. While modern thought tends to see Progress as inevitable or at least desirable, and accordingly attempts to maintain the status quo as stagnation and therefore Bad; medieval thought, particularly in Beowulf (which is still mostly Norse pagan in its worldview, Christian window dressing notwithstanding), sees the chaos as inevitable and stasis a result of hard work and courage. Beowulf’s efforts directed at preserving the good parts of the world (the warmth and fellowship represented by Hrothgrar’s meadhall) against the forces of darkness and chaos, only to have his work undone in the end by human hands: Hrothgar’s hall is burned in a feud, the Geatish kings are killed in war, and even the treasure won in his last fight against the dragon is buried with him, and with his death the Geats are doomed to lose against the Swedes and disappear from history. Beowulf IS a hero, and a remarkably unselfish one – he refuses power not once but twice (Hrothgar’s offer to make him his heir, the initial offer of the Geatish crown after the death of his uncle) and only accepts when all other candidates are dead. The idea of heroism as holding off the darkness just a little longer, not winning in the modern sense, just won’t be accepted by a modern audience, I think, even if the writers are thoughtful enough to be able to write it.

    There may be a third reason:
    I haven’t bothered to watch the Hollywood version because everything I’ve seen about it indicates that it has the same problem that plagued Lord of the Rings – Hollywood has trouble with the idea of a honestly unselfish, good man as a hero. Beowulf should be portrayed as a Dark Age Captain America, not conflicted or dark.

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