Friday, 16 November 2007

Beowulf vs. The Luddites

A couple of days ago The Guardian blog opened a debate about whether or not CGI should be banned from movies, and the Luddite hordes spoke in their masses, furiously railing against the death of quality cinema and laying the blame at the feet of ILM and WETA and all the other scumbags that have stopped our generation from producing nothing but Godfathers and Harold and Maudes and Five Easy Pieceses. Why stop there? Anyone who has seen Manhattan knows that black and white is more beautiful than colour, so why not get rid of that too. And with that goddamn Peter, Bjorn and John song so common on soundtracks nowadays, we would be better off getting rid of sound too. I've often thought that cinema died the day they got rid of the organ player in the corner of the theater.

The film that inspired the anti-CGI debate is Robert Zemeckis' Beowulf, the performance-captured retelling of the poem. Granted, the blogger, Ben Child, thinks Beowulf is not that bad an example of CGI (and to be fair there were lots of commenters who thought the blog to be a silly reductive one), but still, railing against bad CGI and blaming it for the parlous state of cinema is absurd. There's good CGI and bad CGI, just like there's good filmmakers and bad. For every Stephen Sommers you get a Peter Jackson. Note also that a lot of bad moviemakers who rely heavily on CGI are young and not quite up to speed on how to tell a well-paced story, while reliable oldsters like Spielberg or Zemeckis are still cranking out good movies and revelling in the new options handed to them by this glorious magical toolbox. It's a crappy argument, and ignores the real problems: profit over innovation; lack of inspiration; creative thought being overwhelmed by bombardment of repetitive story structures, formats and themes. Even worse is blaming overuse of CGI for bad cinema. Is CGI a person? Is he very forcefully making directors use him? No? Then please keep it down, you’re disturbing us while we try to watch Children of Men for the tenth time.

Perhaps I feel so belligerent because I was lucky enough to see Beowulf in the best format possible; IMAX Digital 3D, which is as far from the old skool, curtains-on-the-wall-and-intermission-to-change-reels, kind of cinema that you can get. It's hard not to be overwhelmed by a movie that already has a magnificent visual sweep when it's presented in a format that would even give something as subdued as an Eric Rohmer film the power to burst your eyeballs. Even taking into account the leg-up 3D gives it, Zemeckis throws some amazing stuff at the viewer: Grendel's first appearance in the Mead Hall; Beowulf's triumphant battle against him; the final scenes with a fantastic dragon.

If you know me, you know I love dragons, and this is an incredible dragon. One of my favourite things about Zemeckis is his talent for staging visceral and thrilling setpieces, and Beowulf's fight with the dragon is up there with the heartstopping finale of Back To The Future, or Ellie's trip to Vega in Contact. When it was over I had to will my muscles to relax, it was that exciting.

The performance-capture technology has one great benefit; capturing performances. I think I can see a naming-chronology developing there. Ray Winstone is very entertaining as Beowulf, despite the terrible decision to let him talk with his actual accent, leading to the odd, “Gor blimey, arr fancy you, darlin'!” near miss. John Malkovich is even better as a Grima-Wormtongue-esque weasel advisor who mans up part of the way through the tale. I’m not sure whether I liked Anthony Hopkins as King Hrothgar; even taking into account the slightly distorting effect of the CGI avatar he animates, he seemed a bit sluggish. Angelina Jolie has gotten a lot of press for being digitally en-nakedised yet nipple-free, and she manages to look both more and less human than she usually does (though where did her neck go?), and Crispin Glover, as Grendel, peels the pixels off the digi-walls with his stomping, shrieking, Middle-English-spouting anger.

One of the things I liked most about the movie is that his attack on the Mead Hall is the result of his anger over the noise they make. I mean yeah, when our neighbours make a ton of noise I get angry too, but I don’t burst through their door, conjure up a bunch of blue flame, and then snap a bunch of guys in two while eating their heads. It’s not just because I don’t happen to be a superhumanly strong 10ft tall monster with a weirdly pulsating eardrum thing, either. It just causes more problems than it solves, is all.

Around this point I would save special praise for my man Brendan Gleeson, possibly the most reliable character actor in the world (and yes, he is so so great in this), but it's my duty as a licensed, highly paid blogger to single out Robin Wright Penn, as Hrothgar’s wife Wealthow. There is a terrible sadness about her that breaks through the digital mask, to be replaced later in the film with barely suppressed bitterness and resolve. Shamefully, I’ve not really seen her in enough films to have given her any credit before now, but she’s so good in this I’ll have to keep my eyes peeled in future.

As for the CGI, I'd be lying if I said it was perfect. Arm movements still look clumsy from time to time, which is a surprise considering Zemeckis used motion capture with the actual actors and not animation. Making up for that, the close-ups are incredible, capturing the performances in all their expressiveness. Sadly, that level of detail is lacking in the minor characters; one recurring character (a lady with an epic embonpoint who seems to only be there as a cleavage-based distraction) looks very shaky. Sometimes those characters look too blank or, on the opposite end of the scale, too detailed. Dominic Keating plays John Malkovich’s deformed servant, but in one scene you can see someone else in a crowd scene with the same features. Perhaps it was meant to be the same character, but I doubt it. Even worse, Alison Lohman plays Ursula, Beowulf’s young concubine, but her digital face is so similar to Robin Wright Penn’s that I thought she was meant to be his daughter. As a result I spent the ten minutes following her introduction in a state of shock and confusion as Beowulf macked on her and made comments about “swiving” her. This means The Knockinge of Ye Olde Worlde Boots. Even after the early scenes of debauchery and lechery involving the menfolk, I figured this was taking it a bit far.

Still, these were minor concerns. The direction is confident and surprising, the action is memorable, the script (by Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary) is pacy and eventful while making sure to spend time on inserting plenty of thought-fodder subtext. Taking into account the staying-power of the original poem, Avary and Gaiman spend a lot of time establishing Beowulf as a teller of tall tales, even though he also happens to be a brutal warrior who probably doesn’t need to embellish his exploits. By the end of the movie, the theme of legacy, storytelling, and mythology creep in over and over again, with the concept of the victor shaping history being undermined by the final, wonderfully ambiguous shot. Add to that a subplot about the growth of Christianity and some hilariously unsubtle sexual metaphors (both visual and verbal), and my brain was kept mostly happy while my eyes were fried in their sockets by the 3D loveliness.

The most important thing, though, is that it is as much a film as it is a technological showcase. It does all of the things a film should do. That it is told with new(ish) gadgetry means nothing, unless you really want to rail against it because damn it, cinema peaked with Buster Keaton’s The General! To get that pissed, though, you have to be annoyed with the technological method of telling the story and not the execution of it, and if you do that, then that’s fine, but be warned. This is a far more solid starting point for the performance-capture revolution than The Polar Express or Monster House, and there are going to be a lot more movies made like this in the future, and even more troubling for the Luddites, the technology is only going to get better and better. No more flaily arms! Time to stop fretting about it and get used to it, if you ask me.


sjwoo said...

I'm assuming you saw 300. I saw it on IMAX (it wasn't 3D, though). What did you think of it? Is it worth comparing 300 to Beowulf?

Zemeckis has been tinkering with effects for quite some time, so he's definitely ahead of the curve more so than other directors out there. Still, I wasn't a fan of The Polar Express, for the same reason many have pointed out -- there's something odd about these CGIed characters flitting between looking human and then suddenly not looking human at all. I wish Philip K. Dick were alive -- I'd love to get his reaction on this. No doubt he'd see some form of schizophrenia in it all, people acting like machines, machines acting like people.

The notion of banning technology from movies is ridiculous, so as far as I'm concerned, it's not even worth debating. However, what I find displeasing is the marginalization of stuntwork due to the proliferation of CGI. Maybe I'm just old fashioned, but I've never been a fan of even wire-fu, preferring the demonstration of human skill over mechanical manipulations. Think of that wonderful parkour scene in the beginning of Casino Royale (or the entire parkour movie of District 13). For me, there's no substitute for real, human effects.

Just imagine the Tony Jaa films like Ong Bak...or Jackie Chan's Police Story...or even going back further, the cap of what you have on this blog, Chaplin. What if someone were to remake all those movies using nothing but CGI? Why would anyone want to watch those? I suppose you would appreciate them on their technological merit, but for me, the thrill and the drama comes from knowing that a human being, with nothing but his own bodily skills, did that.

Of course, no studio would make pure CGI movies starring Charlie Chaplin. It makes sense they'd want to use it for a story like Beowulf. I'm curious to see how it all turned out myself, so I'll definitely be going to see it soon.

Admiral Neck said...

I did indeed see 300, and yes, on IMAX, though it wasn't 3D. It was still impressive, but the 3D experience is worth any extra effort to see it. Other than some annoying ghosting that crops up from time to time, it's totally immersive. As for the quality of the movies, I'd easily put Beowulf over 300, but 300 has such camp anarchic energy I can imagine watching that more than once even though I had big problems with it. I might not do that with Beowulf. It's very good, but it had longeurs.

Weird you mention the otherworldliness of the performance-capture. I've been reading up about the Uncanny Valley theory and there is some of that unnerving disconnect present while watching Beowulf. Not all the time, though. Sometimes the verilsimilitude of it amazed me. In a good way.

And yes, while I'm a defendeer of CGI, I HATE the lack of stuntwork in current movies. It's a real selling point for me when a film makes sure to include good old blood and guts. Ever since I saw the egregiously bad Gone In 60 Seconds, in which the big stunt moment that the whole film had been building up to turned out to be an effect, I've been opposed to it. Luckily there is still a place for it, and as you say, filmmakers are more willing to use CGI to create things that could not possibly exist, rather than replace things and actions that do and could.

Wire-fu, though, I do love. I too love the Jackie Chan/Tony Jaa school of "OMGWTF that guy just leapt through a window onto a moving truck!" stuntwork, but good wirework can be beautiful. Some of Jet Li's movies are breathtaking, and he uses wires a lot. Check out the Once Upon a Time In China movies (at least his early ones). They're just amazing.

sjwoo said...

I've been thinking about this, Admiral. Why is it that this motion-capture technology sometimes does look disconnected? It doesn't make any logical sense, because all those sensors attached to the actors are capturing their movements exactly, right? Take a Pixar movie as an example -- The Incredibles. I don't remember thinking, "Jeez, that guy sure looked funny when he ran." Is it because everything is cartoonified already?

They used the same tech to make Gollum, right? And I can't recall thinking he moved funny, either. But then again, he wasn't exactly human...

I've seen Once Upon a Time 1 and 2. The wire work is good, but I think I'm just too old school. When you see a movie like Odd Couple (a relatively unknown Sammo Hung masterpiece) or many of the Shaw Brothers/Chiang Cheh films (Five Deadly Venoms, Avenging Eagle, The Kid with the Golden Arm, etc.), all of these newer movies just all seem so much less, even though they have so many more effects. Give me some acrobat-trained kung fu actors and a steady wide-angle shot any day!

Canyon said...

Nerd alert!!