Beowulf: Going the Extra Mile to Make a Bad Movie

November 21, 2007 at 4:47 pm Leave a comment

BeowulfIt’s now become clear that Robert Zemeckis, the man behind this week’s Beowulf, has entered into the Phantom Zone where onetime good directors go to languish for eternity or until, you know, they die. William Friedkin has been there for over three decades, too, ever since The Exorcist. Francis Ford Coppola for over two decades, ever since Peggy Sue Got Married. Brian De Palma for more than a decade, ever since Carlito’s Way (though rumor has it Redacted has merit). Sure, these guys occasionally direct hits and sometimes even pass close by critical acclaim, though often as blindly as strangers in the night, but, for the most part, it’s pretty safe to say their careers are trapped in some sort of prolonged throes of.Zemeckis, in case you don’t know him by name, is responsible for Romancing the Stone, the wonderfully fun Back to the Future trilogy, Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, and, his pièce de résistance, Forrest Gump, which won the Best Picture and, for Zemeckis, the Best Director Oscar. You’ll notice the infatuation with special effects in most of these movies, and that’s because the guy is a techno-geek, almost as brilliant at pushing that envelope as George Lucas and James Cameron.

Since Forrest Gump, though, things have been sliding down a gentle slope towards public indifference: Contact (bad, with a few good moments), Castaway (ever worse, with an iconically bad volleyball), What Lies Beneath (actually, not all that bad; kind of creepy, thanks to plays on Hitchcockian cliches), and The Polar Express (the director’s first – and very flawed – feature foray into motion-capture technology). His latest, Beowulf, has improved greatly on the aforementioned motion-capture technology that made Polar Express’ human characters so damn creepy to watch, but, well, his human beings are still creepy to watch. Seriously, I think I saw the “actors” blink a combined total of four or five times throughout the whole movie. Consequently, Beowulf’s cast looks blind most of the time, lifeless behind their eyes.

This is not to say that Beowulf is a bad movie. In fact, it’s a pretty good movie and, aside from What Lies Beneath, Zemeckis’ only watchable one in over a decade. No, the problem is the lengths to which Zemeckis will go to try to realize a vision he’s never quite pulled off. The Polar Express and now Beowulf, no matter how extraordinary so much of the CGI looks, fail to project the depth or humanity that even the worst scenes of CGI-augmented movies like Sin City and 300 do. At least when James Cameron and Steven Spielberg tried to shake up the film industry by taking a chance on technology with Terminator 2 and Jurassic Park, they delivered some sort of magic anchored by human characters. Zemeckis doesn’t even bother with that, and has instead opted to focus on visual wizardry as if that alone is enough to impress audiences. Sure, it’s impressive to look at, and the 3D version is a damn treat once you learn how to look past the human characters you’re supposed to care about, but, in the end, it just turns itself into a fantastic vista only slightly more exotic than what I’ve seen in some video games. And again, the human characters remain pretty damn difficult to watch.

In the end, technology should be a tool in cinema, not the reason. You can motion capture all you want; digitally animate any environment you want, and lacquer it all with 3D effects, but it doesn’t change the fact that a great movie requires a great story. It just shows the lengths to which you’ll go to trick an audience into thinking they’re watching something worth their time.



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