Friday, January 25, 2008

Beowulf in 3-D

I went to see Beowulf in 3-D for $9 at a theater in Louisiana (about half the price of New York tickets!), and I was surprised to see that the theater had posted a sign stating that Beowulf, officially rated PG-13 by the MPAA, was not recommended for viewers under the age of 17.

PG-13 - Parents strongly cautioned
Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.
According to the MPAA, there's no mention of "17" at all. I was understandably confused by this bizarre movie math formula the theater had apparently invented:

PG-13 + (3-D) x $9 = 17 (??)

Of course I will attest that while the 2-D version of Beowulf may have belonged to the realm of PG-13, watching the film in 3-D gave the intensity of the violence a whole other dimension - pun intended. Although the third dimension is nothing more than an optical illusion, it is an illusion that amplifies the immediacy of the violence, allowing the action sequences to pack more of a visceral punch. The monster Grendel is particularly terrifying; his presence in the opening sequence is not only powerful in surround sound, but overwhelming in surround visuals. The fact that Grendel's attack on Heorot happens while our eyes are still trying to adjust to the new visual information only adds to its success. The other major battles were less intense, owing to the sometimes cartoonish animation, especially when the scenes were well-lit.

*NOTE* The 3-D amplifies more than just the violence - the mostly naked bodies of Anthony Hopkins, Angelina Jolie, and Ray Winstone (in varying degrees of hotness) are amplified here as well and several scenes may prove to be blush-worthy.

Beowulf worked well in 3-D, unfolding as an epic tale almost come to life. Although a few scenes were blatantly created to send the audience on a cheesy 3-D romp without furthering the story (i.e.: a rat climbs up to the roof of Hrothgar's hall where it is attacked by a hawk which carries its prey across the snow-covered land), for the most part the 3-D worked with the story, rather than against. I'm not sure I can say the same about the use of the motion capture CGI.

While I think that animation techniques applied to live-action performances work for trippy Linklater films like Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly (rotoscoping) or adaptations of illustrated children's literature such as Zemeckis' The Polar Express, it feels out of place in the epic Beowulf. With a cast featuring the likes of Hopkins, Winstone, Jolie, John Malkovich (isn't he animated enough already?), and Robin Wright Penn, and with the efforts to bring audiences closer to the story in 3-D, why distance us further from the performances with CGI?

There have been improvements in the technology over the last few years, but motion capture and CGI still fail on many points. The characters' eyes, especially Penn's and Hopkins' baby blues look hollow and unfocused, and not just because Hrothgar (Hopkins) is drunk most of the time. In the scenes that were more darkly lit - Grendel's attack, and Beowulf's encounter with the luscious, nude Jolie-demon - the CGI looked very realistic, almost as though the actors were really standing there, without the layer of animation and motion capture blue suits getting in the way. Other scenes were more cartoonish, distracting from the story, and ultimately making me wish that I was watching a "real" Anthony Hopkins stumbling around his meat hall inebriated, even if it means seeing his "real" naked rear-end in 3-D.


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