I saw Beowulf today – in 3D, which is definitely the way to see it (well, I suppose IMAX 3D is the way to see it, but there’s no IMAX venue in Auburn), and I suspect 3D will become a more and more frequent format for big-budget action movies. (The theatre showed three previews for upcoming 3D films: Neil Gaiman’s Coraline, a Journey to the Centre of the Earth remake, and – for some reason – a U2 concert film.)
It was a lot of fun, especially the amazing fight with the dragon at the end – which really made me want (even more) to see movies of The Hobbit, and The Children of Húrin, and Dragonriders of Pern, and Elric of Melniboné, and a proper version of A Wizard of Earthsea …. (Incidentally, I thought I detected an homage to Dragonslayer’s Vermithrax.)
Grendel, by contrast, didn’t strike me as quite right – he seemed a bit too modern in conception, a distinctively 20th-century nightmare. As for the human characters, the ability of computer animation to convey human facial expression has improved dramatically, though it still isn’t quite there – with the exception of Beowulf’s excellently done face, on which they clearly spent the most time and effort. (He often seemed like a real person surrounded by video-game people.) The bawdiness in the hall, and particularly the initial portrayal of Hrothgar as a drunken fool with his clothes falling off, struck me as overdone; the 1998 cartoon did a better job of capturing the dignity of the original poem. But Hrothgar (voiced and semi-faced by Anthony Hopkins) certainly recovers with his more subtle performance through the rest of the movie. And John Malkovich did his best Severus Snape as Unferth. Happily, none of the characters seemed to have an American accent – though, truth be told, each character appeared to have a completely different accent from all the others! I guess Castle Hrothgar was a more cosmopolitan place than we had thought.
There’s even some Old English in the movie; the bard who recites the tale of Beowulf later in the movie does so in the original Saxon tongue (albeit unaccountably, since that’s what everyone else has supposedly been speaking all along), and even the etymology of Beowulf’s name is given correctly (“bee-wolf,” a kenning for “bear” – sadly, the only kenning that survives into the film). Plus Grendel speaks a dialect that is clearly meant to be reminiscent of Old English, although I think it’s mostly just modern English with a funny pronunciation.
On the other hand, for those who know anything about the cultural background, Hrothgar’s claim to have been the slayer of Fafnir is startling (though admittedly the original Beowulf poem does contain a misattribution, or variant attribution, of Fafnir’s slaying – to Sigmund rather than to his son Sigurd/Siegfried – yet certainly not as far afield as Hrothgar), as are the references to Beowulf’s supposed fame in Iceland and Vinland (in the 6th century, some 300 years before the settling of the former and some 400 years before the discovery of the latter); and the screenwriters seem not to know the difference between “lay” and “lie.” I suspect most viewers will manage to overcome any discomfort caused by these errors.
Easy-to-miss moment: Beowulf briefly sees Grendel’s momma in her true form (on the cave ceiling) – and doesn’t realise it; she just looks like more of the treasure with which the walls are encrusted.
Weirdest self-parody moment: Ma Grendel has stiletto heels – despite having no shoes. This was the film’s most jarring reminder that we are dealing with Hollywood rather than Heorot.
Oh, and the theme song sounds okay when the queen (who looks distractingly like an ex-girlfriend of mine ….) is singing it in the mead-hall, but not when it’s being sung in clearly modern fashion over the closing credits.
Passing from Heorot to Camelot, and from swan’s riding to Starfleet – okay, this has nothing to do with Beowulf, but if you have any geek in you at all it’s a must-see.