REVIEW: Beowulf, And A Discussion On The Advent Of 3D Films

Wednesday, November 21, 2007 at 10:55 a.m.

This is the sixty-ninth film I saw at the Hollywood Arclight Cinemas.

Truth be told, the trailer to this one was rather off-putting. Grimy colours, facial expressions suck, didn't seem like it'll be different from the lousy animation presented in The Polar Express, which, by the way, was an example of Robert Zemeckis taking another step away from compelling stories which made him choosing Beowulf to do a 3D animated film at once unpersuasive and potentially disappointing. Now that the film is out, the reviews from critics are so-so. Still, I wanted to watch it for the 3D - I was intrigued by how this worked initially ... are they really going to provide 3D glasses to all --

Yes, they are. Not all the screens, but one-fifth of the 3000 or so screens that will be showing the film. Will they do the same for international territories? Somebody tell me. (Hollywood jargon: 'international' is different from 'world', in that 'international' excludes North American territories - USA and Canada ... not Mexico - whereas 'world' is everywhere on the planet. By the way, when Hollywood refers to the box office of a foreign language film playing in North American territories, it refers to it as its 'domestic box office' gross.)

While not exactly a bang of an ushering of the age of 3D films, it certainly makes its case very well. The 3D quality here is clearer than what I remember, no more blurs, and the only discomfort is the fact that I wear glasses too and it's kinda hard to prop the 3D glasses up as it falls lower ahead of my nose bridge. James Cameron's Avatar should be interesting when it gets released in less than two years' time (though you don't have to wait as long as that for such films; there's a couple coming out next year too). One thing this film does well to help sell the idea is that it is a serious film, with much violence and nudity. (And on that note, what idiots presiding over the MPAA thought that the film should be given a sodding PG-13 rating and not an appropriate R? I mean, come on, if you want to be autocratic, at least be consistent. )

The advantage of 3D over 2D, of course, is that it provides an extra dimension for filmmakers to play with. That is huge - and let me remind you, the level of increase of possibilities is exponential from one dimension to the next ... just try to imagine tangibly the increase from 3D to 4D. (Note: You can't. That's the point.) A few years back when I was still crazy over the idea of making a 9/11 film myself, I've always imagined it will be a 3D film, due to the increased dramatic and emotional effect such a medium would bring.

Let me digress a little into the history of screen entertainment in the 20th century. Back in the first few decades, when all people had were cinemas (or nickelodeons) and radio, up to 90 million Americans would go visit the cinema per week. That's around half the population. (Today, the weekly figure is more like less than, say, 15%, even during the summer. In other words, more people tune into the Oprah Winfrey Show than visit a cinema at least once every week in the US.) Then along came television. The problem with television was that it was free. Sorta. In order to combat piracy ... I mean, television, studios refused to let their films be syndicated. So television went on to make its own programmes. So in order to combat free television - cinemas started making big movies.

Yes, that is where your epics flourished. (Not that there weren't epics before.) Colour suddenly bloomed and swiftly took over black and white movies - coz television could only play black and white, at least for a while. Technicolor's the word. Also, aspect ratios began to change - it became wider, inching wider and wider until it hit the Todd-AO standard of 2.40:1 (examples of such films include AROUND THE WORLD IN EIGHTY DAYS and THE SOUND OF MUSIC). To compare, television then was really very square (with vignettes, those of you old enough to remember); today, standard def TV is around 1.33:1 = 4:3, HD TV and your widescreen DVD plays at 16:9 = 1.78:1, whereas widescreen movies can often go up to 2.35:1 at the widest. Point is, cinema is doing everything it can to beat television in what used to be its own monopolistic territory.

It lost. TV won. People would rather watch TV at home, and play DVDs of films at home, than to go to a cinema. A few of my friends lament, why? The cinema is so much better a place to watch films than --

Hey, free movies! Downloadable, or costing nearly as much as a movie ticket (or much less if jumping across political borders) but infinitely replayable. So what if the sound quality is bad and people shadows graze past the screen for 0.5% of the running time of the film?

You guessed it, studios are worried. And so, now, seven years into the 21st century, they pull out their trump card.

Because, kids, you can't get 3D at home. Not on your television. (Try not to think about Spy Kids 3-D. Hush hush.) End of digression.

Point is, you should never watch this film without having a chance to see it on 3D. I have never read the Celtic story of Beowulf and Grendel, which is good as much of the story came as a surprise to me. The film is surprisingly harsh with the violence and the ear-splitting sound effects, and there are many tense long takes where the characters await the monster's attack which might come at any moment. It is also very daring, as Beowulf strips off everything to declare his fight with the monster a fair and equal one. So often it does that Austin Powers hide-and-seek-little-pinky thing that I really wished they didn't have to do that and go full out - they dared enough to let him strip, didn't they? Unfortunately, the reality is that much of the audience will be distracted (dumb asses); the girls in particular, and many guys as well for various different reasons. (I suspect, though, that when the DVD is released some nerd would scrutinise the shots frame by frame, whereby he might catch a glimpse of Beowulf's pubes.) And yes, as the trailer suggests, there is a fully nude Angelina Jolie-voiced character. The nudity serves a particular purpose, and the filmmakers used it well.

A surprisingly complex and obviously dark story, with its maturity level kept intact. The songs are suitably Celtic and thus, automatically haunting. The landscapes are bleak, and the people rowdy and rough, as one would expect of the Dark Ages. And the filmmakers dared to let some of the dialogue be unintelligible - because they were spoken in Danish. (If it were in a Celtic language I think I would have recognised it.)

I definitely recommend it. But only at a cinema with a tray of red and green glasses.

How Good I Think The Film Is: 8.5/10
How Much I Liked It: 7.5/10
At What Point Did I First Looked At My Watch: 15 mins
Oscar Noms That It Deserved: Best Sound Editing, Best Animated Feature

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