It's a fairly well-promoted Hollywood movie based on a great ancient epic, with big name stars. Sounds horrible, doesn't it? Sounds like a major butchering of a classic. Even if Neil Gaiman *did* do a major share of the screenwriting, I had enough faith in the machinations of the movie industry to not be all a-quiver in the belief that it was going to be a great movie. The biggest thing was, I was afraid that it was going to get swallowed up in changed premises, new sideplots, and changed scenes, which are often the bane of works based on the classics. God, I love being wrong.
Beowulf is a very...different movie from most you see. For one thing, it's the first mainstream movie I've ever seen in 3-D. I saw a Terminator-based clip at Universal studios, and they have lots of (mostly nature-themed) shows at IMAX, but the only brush-in I've had with 3-D mainstream movies before was a pair of red/blue glasses I saw at my aunt's house (they had a gargoyle picture on them, and I'm sure it was for a horror movie that ACTUALLY JUMPS OUT AT YOU).
Total aside: the glasses brought back wonderful and vivid memories--of the show at Universal Studios, where I figured out that the sunglasses did their magic by opposite polarizations--and of a strange coloring book. And because no one can stop me, I'm going to have a self-indulgent digression about that book. It was one my parents got me, for New Year's Eve at Grandma's. It came with red/blue glasses. And all the lines were double lines--one in red, one in blue (and I think even a set in black). There were careful instructions about what colors to use in which outlines in order to get a pleasing picture, but it was a book for kids, so guess how well that worked. And if you looked at the pictures in the glasses, they looked like shimmeringly multicolored but somehow three dimensional pictures. Except that it was impossible to color in them and get anything vaguely good-looking (at least for the nonartist kid with only dark markers). Still, the only coloring book I actually remember, and it's a pretty darn awesome memory.
So um, yeah, it's a 3-D movie. And in the beginning, they play around a lot with the dimensionality--things fly at you, or appear right in front of your face. A spearhead is supposed to seem like it's about to point you in the eye, because you're looking from Beowulf's POV, etc. Gimmicky, but still pretty cool. Also, the CGI is pretty good--at times, it was pretty easy to suspend disbelief and imagine that they were just very-slightly-over-Botox'd actors. Again, I seldom advocate something based solely on the technical mastery (I loathed LOVE, for instance (what an ironic turn of phrase)), but when it's on something with real content it can be utterly stunning.
And then we get to the actual epic of Beowulf. You know, that silly little plot thing. And...my god, a movie actually followed the original plot VERY CLOSELY (at least, by adaptation standards). In fact, one of the biggest changes fixed a problem I had with the original: Beowulf fights three major enemies; Grendel, Grendel's mother, and then, many years later, a dragon that has absolutely nothing to do with the story. Now...let's just say that the dragon has become plot relevant, and it's all based off of one major plot change (which spurred many small ones) which I don't *particularly* mind. Purists will necessarily disagree, but I have to admit to being impressed by the fact that they kept all the original nemeses and didn't completely take a crap over the original accounts of the battles.
Now, there are definitely quibbles about how different things were treated (the dragon, for instance, was so obviously cribbed from Shadow of the Colossus that it's kind of silly to watch).
In fact, if anyone remembers my rant about Bible stories--all plot details, no development whatsoever--that's actually my beef with a lot of ancient writings, and this movie brought everything to modern day sensibilities without *horribly* compromising the ideals of the original work. Even better--and harder to specify *exactly* what I mean--the movie kept the sense of being an "epic" work. And I have no idea how to explain the quotes around "epic." I mean...well, think about a lot of modern movies. There's a lot of movies out that just *aren't* epic, even though they try to be. Great heroes don't have deep, iconic lines. The music is far too mainstream and not at all timeless. Plot details are hopelessly mired in modern sensibilities. I can't properly explain it, but somehow this movie is one where the lines really seem like words that great heroes would speak, the music has that "One Winged Angel" vibe of modern sensibility with timeless foundations, the plot is something that we can relate to but which also would have made sense back around 500 AD. Christianity is mentioned, even possibly given its due, but the Christian god doesn't suddenly make everything right--it's all about the people, the characters we see (kind of like the major flaw that "1408" neatly sidestepped).
As a quick summary, I just think it worth saying that "Beowulf" is a more-than-usually faithful adaptation of a great work, which makes a piece that is worth the time and money to see in the theatres. Everyone I went with agreed: it's a movie that's far better than it has any right to be in today's cinema climate. Heck, it's got a classically-themed soundtrack with catchy melodies--how long has it been since we've had one of those? This is really a movie where it pays to shelve your doubts and just let yourself have a great time, no matter how well you know the original epic.