Saturday, November 24, 2007

Beowulf: The Uncanny Valley, now in 3D

[click on the graphic above for a full-screen version, if you like]

Over the Thanksgiving holiday, I went with my brother to see "Beowulf," the new motion-captured, animated feature starting some guy, Angeline Jolie, and Anthony Hopkins. John Malkovich also does some obvious voice work, and Crispin Glover is the appropriately annoying voice of the annoyingly grotesque Grendel, though we couldn't figure that out during or right after the show, because the voice of Grendel was so over-the-top annoying and grotesque. But, having looked it up on IMDB, now knowing that Glover did the voice of the monster, I am pleased with having the universe-as-I-acknowledge-it reaffirmed by an annoying actor doing the annoying voice work.

Brief review: The movie sucks. Don't see it. I'd give it a charitable C- for some fun 3D pyrotechnics.

Longer review: The movie sucks because they go deep down into the Uncanny Valley again. The motion-capture animation in this induces "WTF-ism" even worse than it did in "The Polar Express." Although, to be fair, Beowulf is supposed to be creepy on some level, whereas the visual disemboweling of a Van Alsberg children's classic is just horrific on all levels. If I had to sit through either one of them again in Purgatory, I'd choose Beowulf, if only to experience a gleaming, gold, mostly nude Angelina again, and to avoid Tom Hanks' singing.

If you're not familiar with the term, "Uncanny Valley," go check out the Wikipedia page or this article on Damn Interesting, which delves into the CGI realm as well.

The short version of the Uncanny Valley is that we tend to feel more emotionally connected to things with human attributes up to a point -- peaking at being most connected with actual, healthy humans -- but with a deep valley of disconnection (eg, ickiness) when things look too much like a person, but not quite. You get the "wax figure" effect. The, "Something ain't quite right with them Geats, Mildred," effect.

Beowulf is deep, deep in the valley. The characters provoke an emotional connection somewhere between Anne Coulter and a corpse. Note to zombie/corpse/Coulter fans: this is not a good thing. It's fine for people to freak out over your monster and feel like it's inhuman and creepy. But for the whole cast to give off a fug of head-shaking gleep is less than pleasant.

As my bro pointed out, there was no reason for this film to be done in motion capture animation. None. Peter Jackson has proved (with the LoTR trilogy) that you can make realistic CGI critters that both engage and repel. I really can't figure out what the production company was trying to do here, beyond put another nail in the coffin of this style of animation.

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