beowulf’s cold digital eyes

There are some totally spectacular action scenes in Beowulf (2007). When Grendel first attacks and tosses around the bodies of the defending warriors like rag dolls, that’s insane. And the climax with Beowulf battling his son the dragon, that’s totally amazing. It’s like XBox 360 without the thumb strain.

But the rest of the movie looks and feels like a tween’s digital D&D fantasy. The dialogue is delivered like raw meat to ravenous wolves and the characters stroll through the painfully artificial scenery like crackhead mannequins. Meanwhile, the pivotal scene in which Beowulf fathers a demon son plays out like an informercial for the new Angelina Jolie sex doll. (Just three easy payments of $9.99 and you can feel like Brad Pitt. Adopted foreign orphans not included.)

Visually spectacular, but soulless. That’s Beowulf, the movie. And I realize why: the eyes. The eyes of digital characters convey nothing. With us real people, that’s what it’s all about, we convey meaning and context through the expressions of our eyes. That’s the bread and butter of actors in a live-action film. Digital can’t touch that.

Beowulf’s filmmakers tried hard. The eyes of the characters wiggle and wobble in an effort to convey something in a “real” fashion; but in the end, it’s all hyper-artifice, and therefore confusing.

Now compare that to the Teen Titans cartoons (or any contemporary anime, for that matter) where facial expression is everything and is therefore taken to extreme, unusual levels. Obviously, it’s caricature, and a very different genre, but it’s comprehensible. Beowulf, and other hyper-real digital films like The Polar Express, try so hard for reality and authenticity, that they fail miserably and leave the audience wondering. I still don’t know if Beowulf actually even liked the queen.

In the end, Beowulf is a crude plastic fantasy about drunk old men screwing sexy female demons and young Nordic women after fierce battles with gruesome monsters. The soul of the great epic poem cannot be digitized and therefore is left off-screen. Perhaps that’s the only mercy demonstrated by this cruel grandiose video game.