It's taken about one full week and two full screenings (IMAX 3-D, of course) for me to be able to re-articulate my perspectives on Robert Zemeckis' powerfully unexpected Beowulf rendition. And for this assignment, I was aiming to focus on what the genre fans would like about this movie. Call it horror, dark fantasy, medieval monsters, or plain old 'swords & sandals' material, but there's a great deal of fun to be found here ... especially if you call yourself a supporter of the spookier stuff. Fans of the old-school source material as well as FX fanatics should find a lot to enjoy in this new-fangled take on a 1,200-year-old adventure, but it's those who appreciate the 'darker' material who'll be the flick's biggest fans.
The story is one of the archetypal hero quests: A legendary warrior arrives on a foreign land and swears to rid the citizens of a horrific beast that's been slaying folks left and right. The heroic Beowulf handles the terrible monster Grendel without too much trouble, but the creature's passing serves only to awaken another god-like villain: Grendel's grieving mama, specifically, who appears as a flawless (naked) woman -- and is therefore a very difficult beast to ignore.
Like most of us, I was forced to read the epic poem Beowulf when I was in high school. I got nothing from the text itself, but I had a great English teacher who explained the tale (and the subtext) in a wonderfully informative fashion. Having said that, Robert Zemeckis' Beowulf is by no means your grandfather's Beowulf. Utilizing some of the most awe-inspiring technological doo-dads imaginable (and working from a rock-solid adaptation by Roger Avary and Neil Gaiman), Zemeckis is able to not only make the (very) old story accessible for a modern audience -- but he also delivers a damn fine action / adventure movie in its own right. It's been a while since we've seen a good epic adventure, and I'd go as far as to call Beowulf the most dazzling big-screen exploit since Lord of the Rings.
As far as the genre stuff goes, this flick is like a digital buffet. Not only is Grendel one seriously unsettling creation (think Gollum as a giant rotting corpse), but this movie is packed with dragons, demons, spirits, and sea monsters. And it's easily the goriest PG-13 movie I've ever seen. Between the dark subject matter, the thrilling-yet-gruesome violence, and some of the most unsettling sound design imaginable, I'm stunned this movie didn't get an R rating. (Not that the rating matters all that much, but I'm just saying: No longer does "PG-13" equal "squeaky clean and sanitized.")
One might wonder if the audio-visual spectacle of Beowulf (especially on the big screen and in 3-D) might effectively "mask" some of the film's more glaring mistakes, but having seen the film twice now, I'm entirely convinced that the movie works just fine as a 'traditional' flick. It's a fast-paced and appreciably easy-to-follow story, jam-packed with four or five set pieces that'll have you rubbing your eyeballs in disbelief. The voice cast (from lead actor Ray Winstone and sidekick Brendan Gleeson to the haunted Crispin Glover (as Grendel) and an amusing contribution from Anthony Hopkins) is excellent, and even if Angelina Jolie's presence serves as more of a distraction than a natural component ... wow, what a pretty distraction! Plus, for those who care to look for it, there's a sly little subtextual thread that has a little something to say about power, corruption, and the annoyingly cyclical nature of human behavior. So yeah, it's a good film...
... that's made about a trillion times cooler when viewed in the mega-screen 3-D format.