With cutting edge computer generated animation, a roguishly regal Anthony Hopkins, a mostly-naked Angelina Jolie, a script co-written by Neil Gaiman and an original narrative source dating back 1500 years, the new Beowulf movie has to be good...right?
Bad news, boys and girls: while it certainly had its moments, if this is the best Hollywood can do then Beowulf is ultimately a story best left in the 6th century AD. The animation really was top-notch in many places but was abysmal in others - the dragon at the end honestly looks like something out of a Ray Harryhausen movie. The sound was great - seriously, kudos to the sound engineers. Every horse footfall echoed, and there was some lovely harp playing. The voice acting was top-notch as well - Beowulf sounds a bit like a gruff new yorker crossed with a viking, which I suppose is what he was. Much of this film was done really well - it was the ultimate message of the film (and, while I'm criticizing, the closing credits song - really? That's the best ya'll could do?) that really got my goat.
It's not that the film was bad - it starts out pretty well. We get Grendal storming into Hrothgar's (anthony hopkins) Mead Hall and wreaking havoc in the way that only a giant aborted fetus with an earache can wreak; we get furtive glances between king and young queen that convey a dark secret left out of the canonized tale of Beowulf; we get a great conversation between Grendel and his mother in what must be some sort of old pre-english dialect - it's not English, but we can understand them.
We get the arrival of Beowulf and his men, true larger-than-life characters who are overflowing with masculinity, bravery and the sense that the very idea of Heroism has not yet been deconstructed beyond recognition by 20th century postmodernism. We get a magnificent flashback scene where Beowulf recounts the story of his swimming race - "So there we were in the sea, swimming neck and neck for five full days when the great sea monsters struck..." Finally, we get the fight between Beowulf and Grendel - and this is where things start to go a bit wrong.
Beowulf wins but ends up with a dazed look on his face - it was almost accidental at the end, in spite of his bravery. He's standing there with a stupid look on his face and Grendel's severed arm in his hands when his men start screaming his name and he remembers that he's The Hero and gets all macho - the hero is constructed.
It gets worse - I don't want to reveal too much about the story, but the way he deals with Grendel's mother is dishonest. He comes back claiming a victory that was never his, and is forever memorialized for it. Ultimately, as the movie drags on into it's second half, he is forced to atone for his sin - but the concept of the Hero is forever tarnished. He's not the fearless, peerless adventurer everyone takes him for; he asks his wife to remember him not as a warrior or as a king but as a man, flawed and imperfect.
In other words, the film deconstructs the concept of the Hero. What started out as a Golden Age celebration of myth and heroism devolves into a commentary about how, basically, Christianity spread and the Age of Legend was no more.
As I said, this isn't bad, per se. It just becomes disappointing - but perhaps that's the director's intention. The last shot of the film is one of lament - an old hero scowls at the passing of his age. The movie is very much a self-conscious deconstruction - it knows what it's destroying. I just personally feel that it's been done and done better - this film would have been magnificent had it continued with the swagger and bravado and unchecked machismo of the first half hour.
Our pop culture is inundated with compelling arguments to the effect that this is no world for heroes and that idealism and chivalry and courage and the warrior spirit are dead. Just once, I'd like to see a well done piece of escapist fiction that understands all of that and yet dares to take us back to a time when such was the norm.
If you get what I mean, you should check out Alan Moore's Tom Strong books. They're exactly that - Tom Strong is a sort of non-ironic super-strong good guy fighting for the things he believes in. It has post-modern sensibility - it addresses issues of race and imperialism and nationalism etc that plague golden age superhero comics but it does so in a way that leaves you feeling like Tom Strong is that much more of a hero.
Beowulf, on the other hand, leaves you feeling like every childhood story you ever believed in was a lie.
Which of course they were, but christ, we don't need to be reminded of that all the time, do we?