Friday, November 30, 2007

Beowulf (2007)

To borrow a famous expression (and tweak it ever so slightly), there is nothing wrong with Beowulf that could not have been fixed by what is right with Beowulf. This movie boasts some of the most marvelous visual effects and chase scenes (3-D or otherwise) that I've seen, and yet there are maybe 20 minutes of that good stuff in a nearly two hour movie in which lots of bearded men in armor converse languidly while fine actors delivered impassioned vocal performances that come pouring out of the barely-animated mouths of waxy pseudohumans. Are these heroic warriors or talking gummy bears?

As he showed in his last film, The Polar Express, director Robert Zemeckis has a fervent belief in the power of this motion capture technology, where real actors don suits of ping pong balls and act out their parts while computers, which can transpose the information onto animated characters, record their movements. To a large extent, I remain skeptical. Quite a few of the actors in the film are represented on screen by avatars that closely resemble their looks including Robin Wright Penn, Anthony Hopkins, John Malkovich, and Angelina Jolie, wearing nothing but some carefully placed gold paint, a prehensile hair braid and high heels. When Zemeckis' camera gets in real close, we can see how close the computers can come to recreating the texture of a viking's beard hair, the blemishes of a woman's face, the bags and wrinkles under a tired king's eyes. Yet these details can only really be appreciated when the characters are at rest, because as soon as they begin to speak there is a huge disconnect between voice and image. If you close your eyes, it sounds like Anthony Hopkins. If you could freeze frame, it would look like him too. But when he speaks, that essential spark of humanity, the intensity in the eyes, or the subtle movement of facial muscles is missing. It's like the animatronic version of Anthony Hopkins that you'd see if they ever made a Beowulf amusement park ride.

The result is bothersome and, at least to me, totally distracting. The uncanny valley effect is much less noticeable when the characters aren't made to eerily resemble the actors who play them; Beowulf himself, for example, isn't designed to suggest Ray Winstone, and the problem is much less noticeable (it could also be that as the lead character, animators spent more time making him appear more human). But, at least in Zemeckis' use of mo-cap, the emphasis remains on making as many of the actors appear on screen as recognizably as possible. Gil Kenan's superior Monster House was shot using the same techniques but didn't face the same problem because the characters were permitted to exist simply as animated characters not wax museum loan-outs.

Where the mo-cap stuff does shine is in the action sequences, where Zemeckis has total control of his camera. It glides over huge distances without a cut; one remarkable shot connects a great beer hall with the distant cave where a monster waits for the moment to strike. It shrinks down so it can squeeze through a key hole, and it can do extreme low angles without having to worry about digging up the floor of the soundstage. Long takes are always key to truly great, athletic action sequences and motion-capture lends itself to them, as in the first battle between Grendel (Crispin Glover!) and (an inexplicably nekkid) Beowulf, which can show off every moment of the beautifully intricate choreography, because it never has to cut around stunt doubles or accomodate different camera placements. In the world of CGI, the camera is only limited by the director's imagination, and that must be incredibly freeing.

That said, why not just make a totally computer animated movie? The characters in Brad Bird's The Incredibles or Ratatouille aren't designed to look exactly like real people, yet they're animated so expressively (without the "benefit" of motion capture) they become far more real, however counterintuitive that may seem in theory. And Bird's camera is just as lithe as Zemeckis' — it's possible, now that I think about it, that The Incredibles was the last action movie that produced the same giddy adrenaline rush of Beowulf's best moments. Maybe I don't understand the technology but I don't see the advantage of motion capture, then, over a regular computer animated movie. (Is it production time? Is it cost of technology and hardware? Is it the fact that you pay millions to these movie stars and you want some of that to show up onscreen?)

Beowulf is not much of a movie — you'll notice I haven't even attempted to dive into the murky waters that are its plot, and I don't intend to — but in 3-D it is definitely an experience. The studios that release animated movies have experimented with 3-D versions of their films, and I've seen a few of them (including Meet the Robinsons and the aforementioned Monsters House), but those movies were shot for 2-D and turned into 3-D and as a result bore little of the fun uses of the technology that something designed for the medium would have. Beowulf on the other hand was always intended to be seen in 3-D, and boy are its effects fun. And sure, it's a gas to get pelted in the face with imaginary arrows (I'll admit it: I totally flinched). But where the technology surprises is in the way it heightens the sense of danger in a scene designed to build suspense, as when Beowulf enters the Grendel's cave searching for the beast and its table dancing mother and his sword juts out right in our faces, quivering ever so slightly (The still at the head of this piece approximates the effect without the benefit of the third dimension). It's a "watch where you stick that thing" moment but it doesn't take you out of the story, it enhances it; we're in that cave with Beowulf, so we're terrified what's going to leap out at us, not at him.

So love the 3-D, love the action, love the whole idea of animated fare for adults (physical adults at least, mentally this thing is pitched at immatures like myself). But still can't wrap my head around the motion capture. These faces! It's like I, Robot in fleshtones.


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