Sunday, November 18, 2007

Movie Review: Beowulf

Bad movies usually only disappoint or bore me, but this one actually ticked me off.

Beowulf, directed by Robert Zemeckis. Screenplay by Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary. Starring Ray Winstone, Anthony Hopkins, and John Malkovich. Warner Bros. Pictures, 2007. Rated PG-13. USCCB Rating is AIII--Adults.

Read other reviews here.

It doesn't bother me so much that the movie revels in violence to the point of sadism. It doesn't bother me so much that the movie is sexually exploitative. It doesn't bother me so much that the movie takes brainless cheap shots at Christianity. But it bothers me immensely that the movie shows such utter disdain for its source material.

Zemeckis, Gaiman, and Avary apparently dislike something about Beowulf. Perhaps they dislike Beowulf's simple hero-worship, which they've replaced with a moderately engaging tale of human weakness and personal tragedy. Or perhaps they dislike Beowulf's Christian piety, which they've replaced with insults and snickers--in the movie's first half, the only explicitly Christian character is a weak coward who beats his servant, and after Beowulf becomes a Christian himself, he also becomes a pedophile (I'm not kidding!).

This computer-generated movie follows more-or-less the outline of the poem, but with added material and less political sidetracking. Danish king Hrothgar (Anthony Hopkins) builds a new mead hall called Heurot, which quickly becomes a site of joyous debauchery, much of which we get to witness. The revelry is short-lived, however, for the monster Grendel (Crispin Glover) shows up and kills people in graphic fashion. Grendel, incidentally, is one of those whiny, sympathetic Grendels of the sort that show up in modern literature.

Beowulf the Geat (Ray Winstone), whose greatest skill is masculine posturing, soon arrives to slay the monster. Determined to battle Grendel in fair combat, he not only goes into Heurot unarmed but nekkid, thereby exposing us to the full glory of digitally rendered male rear nudity. Graphic fighting with plenty of dismemberments follows.

After Beowulf kills Grendel, Grendel's mother (Angelina Jolie) comes for revenge and slaughters Beowulf's remaining men. Beowulf goes after Grendel's mother and, instead of a monstrous hag, finds a beautiful (according to some tastes) temptress. It is at this point that the film diverges from the poem and simultaneously reaches the grandest heights of silliness. Not only does Grendel's mother have a tail and high-heeled feet (I'm not kidding!), but the movie insists on exposing us to the full glory of digitally rendered full-frontal female nudity...sort of. Grendel's mother, it turns out, has all the anatomical accuracy of a Barbie doll. "Give me a son," she purrs, and I want to hear Beowulf reply, "I would, Ma'am, but I'm not sure how that would be physically possible in this case."

Somehow or other, Beowulf does manage to sire a kid on Grendel's mother, and this kid, rather than a hapless, skinless Crispin Glover, is a dragon who shows up in the twilight of Beowulf's life, and you probably know the story from there. A few extraneous details are thrown in, such as the Geats' conversion to Christianity and the elderly Beowulf's cheating on his wife with a teenage girl.

The poem Beowulf is a pious poem, yet this is plainly an impious movie. I understand why filmmakers would feel the need to add some depth to the simple plot and characters, yet they do so here only at the expense of those same characters. Beowulf comes across as a loudmouth and, in spite of his success against Grendel, a weakling who boasts too much, lies, and lacks self-control. His religion, a source of his strength in the poem, is here in the film a symbol of his weakness. References to the poem appear throughout as characters tell Beowulf his name will live forever in song, yet the movie presents itself smugly as the true story of what really happened.

I dislike this film adaptation of Beowulf for the same reason I dislike 300. Besides displaying violence, sex, and masculine posturing for their own sake, it wants to score philosophical points, yet is consistently dumb. Religion is obviously bad, 300 tells us, because Spartan priests are ugly and stupid and like to have kinky sex with a teenager. Christianity is obviously bad, Beowulf tells us, because Christians are ugly and stupid and Beowulf likes to have kinky sex with a teenager. Someone should remind Zemeckis, Gaiman, and Avary that not all religious people are ugly or stupid and that Christianity doesn't approve of kinky sex with a teenager unless you happen to be married to her, in which case you would, preferably, also be a teenager.

On another note, I am increasingly convinced that the Motion Picture Association of America has an ethnic bias. If an animated film with this much gore, nudity, and sexual innuendo came from Japan, it would be rated R. How can Beowulf get a PG-13 rating if Appleseed, which has moderate action violence and no sex, gets an R rating? Beowulf has destroyed my faith in MPAA ratings. I must now concede to the alarmists that these ratings have indeed become effectively worthless.

Furthermore, how does an animated film with this much gore, nudity, and sexual innuendo, not to mention snide attacks on Christianity, get only an A-III rating from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops? This movie deserves the big O for Morally Offensive or at least the A-IV for Limited Adult Audience. Beowulf has seriously wounded my faith in USCCB ratings.

The Sci Fi Catholic's Rating for Beowulf:

Myth Level: High (reasonable rendering of a hero epic with tragic elements)

Quality: High (technical virtuosity, reasonably good writing, high production quality)

Ethics/Religion: Low (sadistic violence, gratuitous sex and nudity, empty-headed attacks on Christianity)
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