Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Ripper tearer slasher

You know what? I wouldn’t object to Angelina Jolie giving me the horn.

Last night, Codename Moose fulfilled his blood-oath and took me and the Dr to see Beowulf at the IMAX. He’d tried to get tickets over the weekend but it had all been fully booked. Last night was crowded, too – mostly with bright-eyed, slightly balding fellows around the age of 30. Many wore suits and had clearly come straight from proper jobs. But the general sense was that here was a film was aimed at those who never quite grew out of He-Man and Transformers. A film with fighting and monsters and perhaps a small hint of bare girl-flesh.

Which it is. Hooray!

There were a few women taggers on, looking mostly long-suffering as we waited to go in. The Dr admitted her bias against this rough and tumble Old English stuff, so thunderously barbaric compared to her helleno-classics. But I dared suggest that Beowulf might be a little less heavy handed than that other recent CGI-fest, Frank Miller’s 300.

Who would win out of the Geats and Spartans? Well, I don’t know, but whichever one lost would probably do it really well.

As in the Old English poem, a big scary monster called Grendel starts attacking a mead hall and eating the people inside. Then, from across the sea, comes Beowulf, young and bold and so impossibly cool he’ll fight Grendel with his bare hands…

It’s an impressive-looking movie, all the more so in IMAX 3D. The swooshy “camera” moves are all a bit reminiscent of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings – and obviously it’s easy to see other influences, which Tolkien nabbed from the original poem. But this is all on a much smaller scale than the War of the Ring. Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary’s script sets events almost exclusively in the same township – with Beowulf never going home. I’d argue this actually makes the world depicted bigger, because travelling any distance is so much more arduous and so man is more at the mercy of the elements. There’s no chance of a last-minute, wizard-led cavalry coming to the rescue.

The 3D is very exciting: blood drools down on us, monsters leap out at us, bare and toned bottoms look real. There’s a bit of a warm-up before the film to get you used to the 3D stuff. Examples of fish and dinosaurs and a trailer for The Polar Express help make you feel a bit less silly about the huge, 1980s-style glasses.

In general, the action sequences are much more involved than in the poem. Beowulf’s win against Grendel makes use of the eaves and a chain and a door, where in the poem he just keeps his grip. But these embellishments are needed to help tell the story visually, rather than via a narrator. They also give more dramatic pace than “they fought and Beowulf won”.

Only yesterday, Gaiman himself noted reviews being impressed by the faithfulness of the adaptation to the source material. The script sticks closely to the events as given in the poem, but also interweave the random fragments of plot into one cohesive story. They also give motivations to each of the characters, so there’s a bit more depth and sense underpinning all the fighting.

One example of this is explaining who Grendel is and why he’s attacking the mead hall. He’s a rather more sympathetic character than the monster in the poem, though he does come across a bit like a nuisance neighbour always complaining when your TV’s on too loud.

The language Grendel himself uses when speaking to his mum again suggests a closeness to the Old English original, and at one point they even squeeze in a bard singing Beowulf’s story just as it has been handed done since. It occurs to me that despite what’s been changed, we can still believe that the poem we know followed from these events – the storytellers and friends in Beowulf’s own lifetime are already embellishing their accounts.

The film also very deftly incorporates the tensions between pagan and Christian ideology over which critics have so come to blows. Anthony Hopkins’s Danish king won’t put his faith in the Roman god, but his young wife and other courtiers are seen wearing crucifixes. Without ever being intrusive, this becomes more telling in the last section of the film, where the older Beowulf and his demons seem like a relic from a previous age.

Gaiman’s post yesterday suggests the film has got the thumbs up from the one-true-God squad. But this is in response to the CAP thinking it “the most heinous culprit for stealing childhood from children ever made”. The gore is wet and vivid, and I can see that anyone expecting another Polar Express might be a little surprised. But, um, it’s a tale from the Dark Ages about a man who fights monsters… you betray your own ignorance by assuming this stuff’s just for kids. And Homer and fairy tales are full of sex and violence too. The Bowdlerised versions lose a great deal of sense of meaning.

Even then, for a film that’s essentially about three very gruesome fights, the sex and violence aren’t gratuitous. At the IMAX, Angelina Jolie stands 40-foot tall, in nothing but gold paint that’s falling off her. As she sashays about and makes gimps of us all, look carefully (as I did) and you just about get a hint of a nipple. She’s about as real a naked women as a Barbie. The ever more contrived efforts to keep Boewulf’s willy out of shot reminded me of an old Hale and Pace sketch (or, for younger readers, the opening of Austin Powers 2).

But this hardly detracts from a thrilling adventure, full of wit and detail. The Dr admitted her previous fears were unwarranted, and she quite liked Beowulf’s six-pack. Definitely recommend the IMAX version and the 3D specs (not just for the six-pack). And, as we tramped blinking down the long staircase after it was all over, Codename Moose and I spotted a poster… Transformers in 40-foot 3D!


Rob Stradling said...

"The Dr admitted her bias against this rough and tumble Old English stuff, so thunderously barbaric compared to her helleno-classics"

I may have moaned about 'Beowulf' being all talk and no action - but have you ever gotten past the ship lists in 'The Iliad'? I submit that Homer was the first evidential case of autism in human history.

Anonymous said...

3D. Like, cool, man.

There is talk of a second film already.
"Beowulf Two - This Time With Cars n Guns."


0tralala said...

Rob: I think the ships get excused as a rhetorical device. Though fabbo comics version "Age of Bronze" does do all them ship in one panel...

O: I think this Beowulf Two you describe is in fact IMAX Transformers.

Anonymous said...

You spelled Tolkien right! I don't know, I'm still a bit leery about this one ...

Rob Stradling said...

Is that the comic Lister was reading in Red Dwarf? "Kapow, Thud, Die in bed you Trojan pig-dog!" or whatever?

The ship-list might have worked fine in Homer's original performance context. It might even have been funny. But what possesses modern translators to include it?

0tralala said...

Leslie: My spelling is quite good when I'm paying any sort of atenttion.

Rob: I don't know. Professional integrity? Fidelity to the original source material? :)

Anonymous said...

I know your spelling is quite good, usually. I would have commented on it otherwise before now.