Past Forward

Robert Zemeckis, Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary employ cutting-edge technology to re-imagine the oldest tale in the English-language written tradition.

Shimmering in the false light of enchanted golden treasure, cascading water turns to gold on her skin as she emerges from the murky depths of her subterranean cavern to meet her visitor-foe. Her words of challenge roll like distant thunder as her reptilian tail whispers its way around her hero-prey. She is the monster's mother, the destroyer of worlds and the creator of legends. Scary and seductive, threatening and alluring, she is power, promise and ruin. Like her kindred spirit Lucifer in Milton's lost paradise, she is the hidden heart of a hero's story, the epic epicenter of director Robert Zemeckis' strange, new Beowulf.

This is ' and is not ' the Beowulf of the ages, the familiar story of a Nordic warrior who bests the man-killer Grendel and then faces his vengeful mother. Novelist Neil Gaiman (Stardust) and back-in-the-day Quentin Tarantino collaborator Roger Avary (True Romance, Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction) have not so much adapted the ancient Anglo-Saxon poem as adopted its trappings and gone their merry, movie-making way. Grendel's mother's new carnality and her centrality ' the ways in which she manipulates both these men and their motives ' fundamentally change the tale being told. Unlike most literary liberty-taking, however, Gaiman and Avary's efforts stay interesting and true (for the most part), a respectful re-imagining of the themes of not only their source material, but of much of ancient artistic thought: immortality, consequence, the costs of courage and the price of pride.

In this spirit of risky and retro re-invention, it seems fitting somehow that this oldest extant English poem should be lavished with 21st-century magic. Just as a straight retelling in film form would honestly have done Beowulf little narrative justice (too much of the life is outside its events, in the lilt and rhythms of the poem's language), live-action would have been laughable, traditional animation too dry and dismissable. And so, as odd as it seems to say, the eerie, still-evolving motion-capture technology that has so bewitched Zemeckis (The Polar Express) ' and with a 3D option, no less ' presents itself as the most fitting of the possible alternatives. The medium isn't perfect, and it isn't quite polished just yet, but it takes an imaginative leap forward in Beowulf.

The aging Danish king Hrothgar (Anthony Hopkins) marks the opening of his mead hall Heorot with a raucous celebration, a loud and lascivious fete whose reverberating echoes disturb the sensitive-eared man-monster Grendel (Crispin Glover). Driven in agony and anger from his mountain hiding place, the misshapen giant turns the hall of revelry into a hall of horrors, ripping men in two and putting a grisly stop to all feasting. When he returns to his dark den, he tells his mother (Angelina Jolie) of his deeds, dangling the handful of rag-doll bodies he has brought back with him. In the wake of his attack, the Danes live in shame and fear, their besiegement spoken of in countries far and near. Then, salvation arrives in the warrior form of Beowulf (Ray Winstone), a Geat braggart and adventurer who vows to face down Grendel, a quest that will put him on the wrong side of the monster's mother ' and face to face with his own corruptible mortality.

For all the visual beauty of this Beowulf ' the delicately snow-tipped trees, the colossal sea monsters and dragons, the roiling ocean and rocky Danish coast, the blond beard fuzz of Beowulf ' motion-capture still consistently fails to put adequate life into the eyes of its CGI humans. It's a frustrating shortcoming that's difficult to accept because the film is exceptionally well-cast voice-wise, because the medium does water and blood extraordinarily well, and because there are fleeting moments when the eyes do truly shine. Jolie's first appearance and facial expression is motion-captured so well as to genuinely seem lifelike; only in subsequent scenes does that creepy flatness creep in and hollow out her presentation. But other characters ' John Malkovich's royal advisor Unferth, Robin Wright Penn's queen Wealthow ' never break beyond their computer-generated geneses, even for a moment. So there is still much work to be done.

But Zemeckis made an unbelievably canny choice when he created a 3D version of Beowulf. Arrows sing outward over the audience, water and blood drip off the screen. Nifty, well-placed three-dimensional trompe l'oeils invigorate Zemeckis' movie and his characters, a sleight of hand sufficient to save them both from Polar Express' fate. In that film, you wondered why anyone would bother with this new technology, and its humanoid grotesqueries, at all. But with Beowulf's scope and improvements, you begrudgingly begin to see the possibilities. And so quite unexpectedly, what long looked like Zemeckis' folly of a film manages to simultaneously give the oldest of poems ' and the freshest of technologies ' new life.