Last night, we saw BEOWULF in Imax 3-D, which is a combination moviegoing experience and thrill-ride. BEOWULF is the unlikely collaboration between BACK TO THE FUTURE and WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT director Robert Zemeckis, SANDMAN and STARDUST scribe Neil Gaiman, PULP FICTION co-writer Roger Avery, and some anonymous bard or bards who, around the seventh to tenth century AD, wrote down a poem (probably heard from others) about this Weather-Geat prince who beats up a few monsters.
As might be expected from Gaiman, who has made a cottage industry out of probing, prodding and post-moderning the enduring myths and stories of the western world, BEOWULF follows the broad contours of the poem; but is less interested in telling a straight account of events than in a "print the legend" exploration of what the "true" events behind the poem's account might be. The creators don't take the magic or the essence out: Beowulf's just as mighty and foolhardy as he is in the poem (albeit quite a bit less noble); supernatural monsters and demons are just as real as in that tale; and Beowulf's fights with Grendel and the dragon are as slam-bang satisfying as one could hope. Indeed, the dragon may be the best such fire-breather ever realized on film.
But the filmmakers introduce complexity into the story, by making Beowulf, Hrothgar, and the other folks in the saga three-dimensional (I'm not just referring to the headache-inducing glasses the audience was wearing); by making Grendel sympathetic, and giving him and his mom motives for their acts; by exploring some of the mysteries of the poem (if Beowulf kills Grendel's mom in her watery lair, why does he haul back Grendel's head?); and by recognizing that one can obtain revenge on a man in far subtler ways than beating the crap out of him.
The motion-capture animation generally looks great, although the hair-thin line between animation and reality is sometimes jarring. And the 3-D effects pose an inherent visual storytelling problem. A primary goal of framing a shot is to focus the audience's attention on whatever the object is on screen that is most crucial to telling the story. But 3-D focuses the audience's attention on whatever is flying at them, be it a rat snatched by a hawk, an arrow, or half of a bisected warrior. For instance, in one scene Beowulf and his men drag their ship up onto a rocky beach. Our attention is not on the men; not on the ship; but on the millions of water-polished stones in the foreground (i.e., floating over the front row's heads). Now, the stones are visually impressive, and the thought of generating them in a computer is daunting. But what part to they play in telling the story of Beowulf?