Monday, December 3, 2007

Two Hours In The Uncanny Valley

At the behest of my partner-in-crime, Loaded Questions Kelly, I went to see Beowulf.

There's a theory called The Uncanny Valley that is applicable here. I quote from Wikipedia:

as a robot is made more humanlike in its appearance and motion, the emotional response from a human being to the robot will become increasingly positive and empathic, until a point is reached beyond which the response quickly becomes that of strong repulsion

In other words, when something is very humanlike, but not quite there, we tend to reject it. One can think of many reasons why a corpse is creepy, but why mannequins? How about a Real Doll? Well, okay, lotta reasons that's creepy.

Beowulf is two hours in the Uncanny Valley. Better than Final Fantasy, in some ways, and presumably better than director Zemeckis' earlier work, The Polar Express, which I could not bring myself to watch, Beowulf still had me thinking thoughts like, "Hey, that almost looks like Anthony Hopkins!"

They spent millions creating animated models of Hopkins, Robin Wright (Princess Bride) Penn and of course, Ray Winstone, but they clearly devoted a huge amount of time and energy to the Jolie model. In some shots, from some angles, it's very impressive. Because the "hits" are so good, the "misses" are terribly jarring, reminding you that, in fact, it's not Jolie but an amazing simulation.

With Hopkins, you sorta think, "Hey, that kinda looks like Sir Anthony," but actually, with both him and Jolie, you miss their subtler facial twitches and tics. Maybe Hopkins over-acts in general, but whatever the reason, his model seems flat. Some of the biggest misfires with Jolie's model is a failure to capture her seductiveness. (Though, in fairness to her animators, I can't recall a time she's been a truly evil character, as she is here.)

Winstone and Penn hardly look like themselves, or realistic at all, but that sort of works in their favor. I don't know Winstone enough by look. And, to be honest, I have a strange sort of uncanny valley feeling whenever I see Penn, especially in Princess Bride. I have some sort of disconnect between my brain being told she's a beautiful princess and what my eyes are seeing. (Not that she's ugly or anything, it's just an odd feeling I get when I see her, which the movie actually recreated pretty well.)

Obviously, I'm rambling about the animation here but that's because it was always on my mind. As with Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow and Final Fantasy, I'm constantly thinking about the technique while I'm watching it. It's very tiring. Even the more adventurous animé techniques (like those in Appleseed) usually vanish as the movie progresses.

Not for me. Not with this sort of CGI. (Pixar, no problem.)

I didn't see the 3D version. This will be the first iteration of a new 3D technique I've missed in my lifetime. It usually barely works for me and almost always gives me a headache. Plus, the movies are almost always pure crap. (Exceptions being the original versions of The House of Wax and The Creature from the Black Lagoon. Back in my day, they didn't even try.)


This movie takes the thinly plotted Old English poem Beowulf and, uh, oh, hell, does it matter? OK, basically, the movie takes a straightforward story of a guy who beats the crap out of two evil monsters, and then a third evil monster when he's old, and turns it into a story about a guy who beats the crap out of one evil monster, has sex with the second, and thereby spawns the third, which then kill each other.

And, yes, if you're keeping score at home, monster #2 (Ms. Jolie) lives on to, presumably, inspire a sequel.

The whole sex angle is...different. And I guess it adds some depth to an otherwise straightforward story. Though since he ends up dying as a result of his own earlier sin, it takes some of the shine off the story. The story's Beowulf was not a man with any sort of weaknesses (as pointed out by this review by Dan at Gay Patriot). They foreshadow Beowulf's fall from grace by showing him losing a swimming contest because he stopped to kill some sea serpents and canoodle with some mermaids.

Of course, when you combine that with Hrothgar's (Hopkins) previous dalliance with Grendel's mother, it's obvious what's going to happen.

Stupid though it may seem, Walthow's (Penn) icy perfection made Beowulf's tryst seem somewhat understandable (even if she and Beowulf weren't yet involved). Even as an evil water demon, Jolie seemed a lot more inviting than Penn.

Of course, I don't remember any women in the poem.
I do remember a naked fight.
I would have also sworn that Beowulf wins his last fight through the power of Jesus.

The mind, it plays tricks.

Well, overall, it wasn't horrible. Mostly not boring. The Boy sez, "It was stupid."

Look for Crispin Glover as GRENDEL! in an upcoming musical version.


  1. Now when you say it was at my behest you make it sound like I asked you to see if because I thought you would enjoy yourself. That's not why I asked you. It was because I thought we could argue about it.

  2. And did you?

    NO! I sat through that ... movie and you bailed on me!

    You owe me.


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