First, a disclaimer: I am a geek, a bonafide, near-sighted bookworm.
Like everyone else, I read “Beowulf” in high school, but unlike most normal people, I also spent a good amount of time in grad school translating the thing from the Old English. This is not as easy as you might think, hours spent pouring over the dictionary, figuring out if a suffix is in nominative or genitive case, not to mention sitting in class, butchering the pronunciation with a weird, guttural gurgle. But I tell you this not for self-aggrandizement (because everyone knows, dorks are hot), but just to let you know that while I’m no expert, I know enough about the poem to have reasonably high expectations of a film version.
And I’ll tell you right now, those expectations did not include an autistic monster-child, nor his mother as a stiletto wearing sexpot. For those who need the quick refresher, Beowulf is a warrior who rolls into a besieged kingdom to rid it of a pesky monster problem. He battles the bone-crunching Grendel, his vengeful mother, and eventually a fire-breathing dragon, defeating all. It’s a tale of a code hero, a man who attains glory through his noble actions. Certainly, modern interpretations should add their own spin to an ancient tale, but in the hands of director Robert Zemeckis, “Beowulf” becomes… silly.
Armed with an all-star cast, Zemeckis is up to some serious character revision, and not all of it is good. Beowulf (Sam Winstone) is a Nordic poster boy who is fond of displaying his rippling muscles while fighting in the buff. Considering the movie is not only CGI but viewed in 3D (yes, you need your funky glasses), you can imagine the “Austin Powers” homage to “hide the phallus” that ensues. Grendel (Crispin Glover), the vicious monster who terrorizes the kingdom, is one of literature’s deliciously ambiguous figures, yet here he is marginalized, an angry child who attacks because the villagers are too loud. Let me repeat that: they are too loud.
Most disturbing is the reinvention of Grendel’s mother. Upon losing her son, the beast’s primal, maternal rage is supposed to drive her to revenge herself upon his killer, only in this case, the monster is… Angelina Jolie? Emerging from the dark waters, Grendel’s mom looks like a gold-dipped Emmy statue, in all her seductive glory. Instead of Beowulf’s blood atonement, all she wants in return for her son’s death is for the warrior to give her a child (do you hear me, Brad Pitt?). Beowulf succumbs to her crazy hotness, basically signing up for a life shame and deception.
Which, in essence, is not really what “Beowulf” should be about. Of all the dark themes, of all the forgotten magic that the epic poem contains, Zemeckis chooses to invent the most boring thing of all: a guy who has some explaining to do when a one-night stand resurfaces to bite him in the a*s. Open any newspaper, it’s a story we’ve heard before. Though he tries to overcome the botoxed, plastic-faced effect of the CGI using the intimacy of 3D, the director can’t make us care about this mundane drama. Have we become so thoroughly cynical as a modern audience that we can’t just let a hero be a hero?