Surface Treatment

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 16, 2007

In "Beowulf," director Robert Zemeckis uses a technique called "motion capture" to conjure fantastical things, angles into action and sweeping vistas to stun your eyes and take your breath away. But what he hasn't mastered and what the technique can't do is this: emotion capture.

The nuance of the dilated nostril, the licked lip, the involuntary swallow, the unwilled tear -- all gone. Is that a loss? Hard to say.

What you are seeing is the process by which actors' movements are recorded electronically, transformed into imagery, then inserted into a meticulously realized, computer-generated Dark Ages (it's A.D. 506 on the screen). Zemeckis, of course, has used this technology before in "The Polar Express."

This is the increasing reality of movies, this is the 'wulf that's at the door. Old dinosaurs like me can rant about pointy-headed issues like the diminishment of performance, the absence of chemistry in the cast (can electrons have chemistry? wouldn't they have valence?), but this is the future and it smirks.

However, for a few seconds, let's pretend "Beowulf" is a regular movie and such concepts as "performance" haven't gone missing, and deconstruct it based on regular movie considerations.

You have to say that the screenwriters, Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary, have fixed the oldest chestnut, the Anglo-Saxon epic tale, the bane of freshman year. When the original was assembled (written? collected? sung? chanted?) around the embers back in the good ol' 700s or so, no theory of psychology existed, so there was no storytellers' need to conjure coherent behavior patterns or fully realized plots. Man was so powerless and all nature seemed arbitrary, so stories could be arbitrary, none more so than the epic poem of the Anglo-Saxon peoples (even if it told of Scandinavian adventures): The great warrior Beowulf fights and kills first Grendel, then Grendel's ma; 50 years later he fights a dragon.

Unacceptably episodic today. No arc. No growth. Where's the reveal? What's the back story? Thus, Gaiman and Avary root the thing in family dysfunction, and the two monsters, plus the fire breather, are the manifestations of alpha-male pathologies for which many innocent people pay in blood, even if the alpha male is the only one on the planet capable of dealing with the terror he himself has unleashed.

As Zemeckis has it, Grendel kicks his way into the mead hall one night, all ticked off because the noise is frying his eardrums, and eats a lot of human thingies, which is easy to do if you're 17 feet tall. Old King Hrothgar (face and voice courtesy of Anthony Hopkins) offers half his treasury to any man who can kill Grendel, and soon enough the Viking guy with the body of Apollo shows. For reasons that make no sense except as a marketing decision, he decides to fight in the nude, and so it is that Ray Winstone's Beowulf has a six-pack that Ray Winstone as a human being would have to have spent the better part of the year creating in a gym. I suppose that's a good thing.

The fight is a corker, an ill-met-by-firelight match that involves much kung-fuing and dragon punching (Eastern martial arts are the model for most of the physical action) until most of Grendel hulks off, leaking plasma, to die in the marsh and upset Ma. Ma is Angelina Jolie as interpreted by someone who apprenticed by doing airbrush portraits on custom Harley gas tanks. She's all sleek, gleaming catgirl, and Jolie's great beauty is deployed for its intimidation value as much as for its allure. And thus we learn the curse of Danish kings, a curse that would last another few hundred years when a fellow named Hamlet fell for it. They like the beauties too much, even if they be demons or moms, no matter the consequences.

The years pass, 50 of them. Under Beowulf the new king, the land prospers. And then one day, who should arrive but Rodan, from Japan, breathing fire. No, monster lovers, it's not the old Toho Pterodactyl on wires; it's a flying dragon with microwave breath, and once more the old warrior has to buckle on the gear and get with it.

Again, a hell of a fight. Beowulf, spearing the flying fright train, manages to bind himself to it; he's Ahab aboard the whale, looking for a vulnerability as the careening thing napalms the castle, raining destruction. Somehow Beowulf gets close enough to go for the heart, but his arm isn't quite long enough. Hmmm, he's struggling to kill the flying dragon he's riding as it strafes a castle. What's a fella to do?

Now, is action this outlandish a movie or a cartoon or some weirdness in between? The answer is the last. Watching it -- through glasses, by the way, because it's in 3-D at most theaters, and the shades are cool Wayfarer-type frames, not the '50s cardboard punch-outs -- has the strange feel of a dream from someone else's head, where the details aren't quite sharp enough to convince but so sharp they almost convince. It seems motion-capture technology can't get beneath the skin, so while the characters' gross movements are convincing enough, the microcircuitry of facial expression, the complex dance between the fibers of muscle under the skin, the twitches, the ironic sniggers accompanied by a half-squinted eye, the whole nonverbal subtext of human communication, is oddly missing.

What the technique permits, of course, is liberation of the camera (or viewing apparatus, as a camera really isn't used). Extraordinary things are possible. For example, the "camera" will begin on a human face, climb to the rafters to a scurrying rat, stay with him as he dodges and climbs until at last he's pronged by a falcon, swept out of the mead hall, transported across the snowy fields and deposited in the lair of Grendel, where that old crank is getting more and more annoyed at the raucous noise of the celebrants. Or it can stay with Beowulf when he rides his knife down to sunder the thorax of a sea monster, splitting the creature and spuming oceans of blood on the descent. You simply couldn't do any of these things in real scale or even miniature. So the astonishing becomes commonplace.

Some of the illusions don't pay off. While the dragon is a true demon from hell, and the motion-captured Jolie a wonder of the fleshly world, poor Grendel fails, really, to impress. This is the ur-monster of English literature, and the designers should have risen to the task. Instead, we get a tall old grump with a displaced jaw, an attitude problem, dirty feet and a runny nose. He looks like Mr. Green Jeans on steroids, or those seedy old men who hang out at train stations.

At the film's end, you wonder: Is it anything?

Or is it just another stupid human trick?

I say the story works, but I wish they'd teach these avatars to act.

Beowulf (114 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence, disturbing images, nudity and some sexual material.

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