For want of double-paned windows, the kingdom was lost

I saw Beowulf in IMAX 3D at the Metreon this afternoon. Anybody who has interest in this movie but hasn’t seen it yet for whatever reason, I’d say that 3D, whether it’s the IMAX version or not, is really the way to go. It delivers pretty well on the spectacle, and that kind of thing is pretty much the only reason to leave the house to see a movie these days.

Incidentally, I’ve always liked the pre-show they do at the Metreon’s IMAX better than the actual movie. They start the drums going and light up behind the screen to show you where all the different speakers are; as far as “look how bad-ass we are” marketing goes, it’s pretty cool.

As for the movie itself: did I mention you should see it in IMAX 3D? I think it says something that this one seemed calculated to carry through as a big Christmas season event movie for this year, and the attention has already pretty much worn out. It’s not that bad, in the end; it’s just kind of unremarkable.

The biggest problem is that a lot of the movie is just really, really silly. Not long after Grendel’s mom makes her appearance, it turns into something else, and it becomes pretty obvious that the absurdity of the beginning was intentional. The problem is that the absurd part takes up what feels like half the movie (I wasn’t keeping an eye on my watch, I can only say what it felt like).

You’ve got a bunch of actors from all around the UK and whatever faux-UK part of the US John Malkovich comes from, all done up in CG with paunches added or removed and a fetishistic attention given to moles and hair and stubble. And they’re all so loud that it annoys a really badly-designed Grendel to run in and start bustin’ up the place to get them to shut the hell up already. Then Ray Winstone’s modified head on somebody else’s really modified body comes in and promises to “kill yore mahnstah!” and strips naked for an extended fight scene that seems cut from an Austin Powers movie.

Then a bunch of stuff that’s not directly from the poem happens, and the movie turns into a cross between God of War and a late 90s post-modern liberal thesis on the themes of adultery and the role of man in an ancient poem. It was jarring to see the movie suddenly taking itself so seriously. And I guess if you were just expecting action and spectacle as I was, you could complain about its alteration from hero’s quest adventure story into deconstructionist reinterpretation of the hero’s quest and adventure story itself. But really, Neil Gaiman’s name is right there on the screenplay; being surprised at that would be like going in and being surprised that everything is computer-generated.

The only genuinely weird, complaint-worthy thing about the story is knowing how feminist Gaiman tends to be, and trying to reconcile that with the fact that Robin Wright Penn’s character still just comes across as a dead-eyed, emasculating bitch through the whole movie. Kind of like what you’d get if you crossed Eowyn from The Lord of the Rings with Hillary Clinton.

As I said, the 3D was well done. I’d been a little worried at having to sit through a 2-hour movie all in 3D, but it’s almost never gratuitous or headache-inducing. The CG isn’t quite as creepy as you might think, but for the most part it just seems unnecessary. There are moments where you’ll be impressed, until you realize that you’re impressed that a splash of water looks like real water, or some bearded dude swinging an axe looks like a real bearded dude swinging an axe. A lot of people slaved over a lot of workstations to reproduce something you could get just by turning on a camera.

The more spectacular stuff, that really depends on its being CG, all struck me as extremely competent, but artless. Sure, you need CG to have a guy flying around on the back of a big golden dragon, but in terms of screen time, those scenes are relatively brief and not particularly memorable.

The only scene in the movie where doing it all in CG paid off, was the first meeting between Beowulf and Grendel’s mother. That’s the scene that’s in all the trailers and promotional material. It’s got a great look to it, it feels like an interesting place, and it creates a truly memorable image. (And again, they cross the line into silly when they give her high heels).

But you’ve still got to wonder if it was worth the effort, though. Angelina Jolie looks like an artificially-constructed person anyway, so you’d think they could’ve saved some cash and just put her in a gold bodysuit and started the cameras rolling. And I guess it’s encouraging for all of us chubby, hairy guys, that we now have the technology to turn Ray Winstone into a young buff dude. But if you’re looking for a guy with a weird accent, muscles, and a disturbingly hairless body, I’ve got to wonder why you don’t just cast Gerard Butler or something instead?