Robert Zemeckis, who happens to historically be one of my favorite directors (largely on the strength of just a couple of movies from an overall spotty filmography), has perhaps never shown as much ambition than when he chose to make an adaptation of Beowulf. The epic poem, despite numerous attempts at adaptation, hasn’t always been well adapted – in some ways, the original text defies adaptation. In attempting to adapt Beowulf, Zemeckis is overall successful, but it’s a flawed film to be sure.
Certainly, if any writer might be equipped to do a good job in the process, it’s Neil Gaiman, who here, in collaboration with Roger Avary, makes a number of quite interesting choices in order to make this material more coherent and relevant. This is a more morally ambiguous and murky Beowulf, a Beowulf where heroes and villains are not as easily defined, where we’re taught to see a sympathetic side even to a monster like Grendel. And, while some of the dialogue of the film doesn’t quite hit home, the film has some really interesting broad themes in play here – questions of maternity, of patronage, of what a hero is.
The film is shot via CGI, which certainly would seem to be the correct choice for the material. At times, the CGI is very effective, even photorealistic. The general space the film’s look sits in, however, is the uncanny valley. And, worse yet, even at its $150 million budget, parts of the film look cheap, like something out of Skyrim. I’m certainly no expert in the CGI space, but I do wonder if the film might have benefited from a more exaggerated style, one where the uncanny valley would be less of an issue.
As it is, however, certain elements of the CGI are very effective- almost, too effective – for instance, the depiction of Grendel is so thoroughly disgusting and creepy, it’s almost too uncomfortable to watch. The fight scene between a naked Beowulf and Grendel is rather difficult to watch at times (and, there’s an out-of-place Austin Powers nudity gag for parts of the film that feels rather at odds with the tone of the film).
Overall, I felt this was an effective, but not ideal, adaptation of Beowulf. There are certain decisions I certainly would have disagreed with, and other decisions that I’m just not sure I would have made – not wrong choices, per say, but different choices. However, for a jonesing Game of Thrones viewer looking for their fix of medieval, epic action and adventure, Beowulf will fit the bill precisely.