Smile and Nod

Smile and Nod: Beowulf DVD

Russ Pitts | 10 Mar 2008 17:00
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The uncanny valley is that place at the bottom of the chart, where a virtual being's resemblance to a real person is just close enough to be creepy, but not yet close enough to fool you into thinking it's actually real. Like looking at a wax model of yourself. Part of you wants to admire it, the other part wants to destroy it. Hard to be entertained by something like that. And such was the case with Beowulf.

After seeing that trailer I pretty much swore not to view the film. And then they sent it to us on DVD, so I watched it anyway. Everyone has a price, they say, and mine is apparently the cost of a movie rental.

I will say this, it wasn't as bad as I thought it would be. There are parts of the film where you completely forget you're watching animated characters. The voice acting and overall animation are so good you can almost believe it's all real. Not quite, but almost. And when it's all in high gear, you stop worrying about it. But those passages are momentary, like the gentle euphoria that comes from eating a double Moon Pie before bed. It lasts only a moment before you remember that those are bad for you, and will probably keep you up all night in mild gastric agony.

If parts of Beowulf are stunningly beautiful, others are downright horrid. The last act of the movie, for example, is hideous to look at. Which, coincidentally, is the longest stretch of the film "shot" in daylight. This is also the part of the film where Gaiman took the most creative license with his source material, although I won't spoil it for you. It's an intriguing twist, and not totally unexpected, knowing Gaiman, but also not entirely convincing. I was equal parts titillated and horrified. The former because, well, it involves sex. The latter because, dammit, it's not in The Original. But again, you get what you pay for with Gaiman, and we, indeed, expect him to shake things up. It would have been more interesting if I wasn't stopping every few minutes or so wondering why the graphics weren't better.

I finished the movie feeling mildy entertained, but nevertheless wishing I'd had a chance to see human actors go at it. Yes, the story was genius, yes I saw a dude reach into a dragon's throat and tear out his heart and yes, you can never quite get enough of seeing Angelina Jolie naked, even if she has a computer standing in as her body double. But when you think of The Original, you don't think about the version they dug up and strung up with string to dance for your amusement. When you think of Frank Sinatra, for example, you don't think of his digitally composited ghost singing on stage at the Grammys, you think of him in a tuxedo on the Las Vegas strip, belting one out with Sammy and Deano by his side. And if you weren't there to see it firsthand (I wasn't), you don't cry about it, you just deal.

Perhaps it would be financially impossible to craft a film version of Beowulf's exploits. Perhaps the cost of rendering the dragon alone would sink the deal before it left the boardroom. Factor in the budget for hiring actors at their "appearing in person" rates and you can probably forget about it. Which, I'm sorry to say, is what they should have done.

As brilliant as the wizardry was in bringing this all-digital version of Beowulf to life, and as hard as I know the 3-D artists and computer programmers worked to make it all happen, it's not a great film. I can't say I enjoyed it on its merits alone. The good parts were good, but most of it was simply mediocre, and as intriguing as the psychological detours were, they were, on the whole, a touch ham-fisted.

Instead, the only real reason to watch this film is to see how far they've taken digital artistry, and how real a computer-rendered film can be. And the answer might surprise you. I will spoil this one for you: We're just not there yet. I look forward to the day when someone can make an all-digital film and my first thought upon watching isn't about how real or not the all-digital cast looks, but we're not there yet, and Beowulf is not that film.

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