With Beowulf, the latest motion-capture film from director Robert Zemeckis, one of mankind's oldest tales is hurled up onto the movie screen using the cutting edge of new technology. As in The Polar Express, Zemeckis's first foray into motion-capture animated moviemaking, the actors are first shot on a soundstage, wearing motion-indicating elements that allow computers to turn their movements and facial expressions into sets of data; then, that data is animated by computers and artists, so that real motion and facial expressions can be re-cast in fantastic settings and melded with wild imaginings. As if that weren't enough, the resulting movie in this case has also been enhanced so the theatrical experience is 3-D; swords, dragons and flame leap from the screen, hovering right before your very eyes. It all sounds wonderful.
But, as so often happens in life, the execution falls somewhat short of the expectation. I know it seems like a betrayal of the critic's job -- to look deeper, to see beyond the obvious -- to begin with complaints about the animation in the film, but it would be even more of a betrayal of the critic's job to not point out the most obvious and glaring fact about Zemeckis's technique. Namely, that it looks horrible. A scientist working in the burgeoning field of the human perception of virtual simulacra would talk Beowulf's animation in the context of the "uncanny valley," the phenomena where, when confronted with a robot or virtual avatar that has a high degree of match to human movement and appearance, the human mind flip-flops and instead obsesses about the smaller elements of mis-match, jarred by the mistakes in the image instead of thrilled by the accuracies. (Confronted with a 98% accurate simulacra, for example, most people instead fixate on the 2% difference.) But I'm not a scientist working in the burgeoning field of the human perception of virtual simulacra; as a layman, I can only offer that in Beowulf (as in The Polar Express), Zemeckis seems to have created a world peopled by drowning victims brought back to life after a three-week soak: Pale, puffy, slow-moving revenants with no light in their eyes.