The Red Dragon has a very definite soft spot for this reimagining of the classic Old English tale, written sometime between the eighth and eleventh century. This is an enigmatic version, due in no small measure to a thundering score by Alan Silvestri and a powerful central performance by Ray Winstone as the titular epic hero himself (the etymology of his name has been ascribed to various possible sources, from the common bear, to ‘war wolf’ and even possibly a type of Scandinavian woodpecker). The casting of Winstone is not without a humorous irony in that at the time of filming he was in his fifties and, arguably, not in the best shape of his life, and of course here he is playing a buff, quintessential hero archetype. This was made possible by the animation of the entire film using motion capture technology, the same technique used by director Robert Zemeckis on his previous film ‘The Polar Express’ (04).
That technology has been updated, and here for the first time ever special electrodes were used that detected the electrical impulses controlling all of the visual responses within each actor’s body, and these signals were then used by computers to mirror realistic eye movements on screen, making an enormous difference to the believability of the 3D renderings as people, and to providing engrossing performances. It was one of the first films released in many theatres using the new 3D technology that we are all now familiar with, and it remains one of the best uses of it. Transferred onto a regular screen some of the graphics of the human characters don’t hold up too well, the queen, played by Robin Wright, for some reason looks particularly pallid and slightly eerie, but in general it still works, and the artistry, details and effects that make up the rest of the environment more than compensate for the, at times, lacking in realism rendering technology. Indeed, even on 2D there is a scene where a warrior on horseback thrusts his spear towards the screen, and it looks a lot more three dimensional than some of the purportedly 3D films out there.
The two disc DVD version is worth getting for a variety of behind the scenes featurettes showing how they actually made the film. The whole shoot was done within an open ‘cube’ inside a studio that was lined with infrared cameras firing relentless beams at the actors, with all the props being hand crafted wire meshes so that unnecessary interference with the beams was kept to a minimum. It seems to have been a hit with cast and crew alike, as scenes that may have taken hours to do on a location shoot could be wrapped in a fraction of the time. Indeed, John Malkovich who appears in a supporting role here (along with Anthony Hopkins, Crispin Glover, Angelina Jolie, and Brendan Gleeson, all really bringing their characters to life) tells of his frustration, partly due to his thespian roots, of so often having to simply hang around on sets waiting for hours to act for only a few moments, and how this method of filming is in many ways a Godsend for professional actors – he has something similar to say on the subject of digital filming in general in ‘Side by Side’.
The script is from screenwriter Roger Avary (who perhaps most famously shared the best original screenplay Oscar win with Quentin Tarantino for their collaboration on Pulp Fiction) and novelist Neil Gaiman. Not short on writing talent then, they decided to take large liberties with the original poem, very much at the bequest of Robert Zemeckis who had strongly negative memories of being forced to study the original in his school days. Without having similarly studied the virgin text, it seems their additions are really the points that anchor the whole story for this version, and in their view have raised it above what otherwise would have been a simple hack and slash bloodfest. The big alterations are with regards to the relationships of the monsters with the humans, and indeed the somewhat human relationships of the monsters, as well as the increasing role of Christianity in their landscape, a landscape which remains in Denmark rather than returning to the homestead of the Geats in Sweden, as in the poem. However, the final act in their original script continued these points through scenes that were mainly dialogue heavy, but when they were granted a larger budget than previously thought, Zemeckis told them to go wild. So, instead, we have over the top action replacing story, which is an enormous waste and it just becomes silly for that segment, with arrows being deflected by sword stroke and horses only just making the final jump over burning bridges etc. etc. At least the animation of a certain mythic beast in this section is fairly impressive…
A lot of subtlety has gone into the production, in fact some of it is perhaps too subtle to really notice, but the idea was to have some of it sink in subconsciously. The music plays a critical role, and it’s spot on, with some live singing from Robin Wright in there too. This is a Warner Brothers film, and, just as they have done with the Dark Knight trilogy and several of their other films, they set the tone with the music amidst the opening shots of their logo rather than waiting for the film proper, which is a very good idea. Much better than a lot of companies who have their insignias show accompanied with complete silence, resulting in either palpable awkwardness in the cinema, or irritation at those still chomping away on popcorn. Bear in mind there is a bit of a let down toward the end of the film, and a further indulgence with the ‘claws’ of Angelina Jolie’s character, but otherwise this is a very fine film.
Also, if you can’t make out some of the dialogue then fret not – several sentences of Old English were deliberately written into the script.
“Men, build another pyre. There’s dry wood behind the stables. Then burn the dead. And seal the hall. Close the doors and the windows. And by the king’s order, there shall be no singing or merrymaking of any kind. This place reeks of death. The skops are singing the shame of Herot as far south as the middle kingdom and as far north as the ice-lands. I’ve let it be known that I will give half the gold in my kingdom to any man who can rid us of Grendel. … No. Unferth, no. No, the gods will do nothing for us that we will not do for ourselves. What we need is a hero.” Anthony Hopkins/Hrothgar
“Demon! Your bloodletting days are finished… It speaks. It speaks!… I am ripper, tearer, slasher, gouger. I am the teeth in the darkness, the talons in the night. Mine is strength. And lust. And power. I, am, Beowulf!” Ray Winstone/Beowulf
“This is not battle Wiglaf. This is slaughter. … We men are the monsters now. The time of heroes is dead, Wiglaf. The Christ God has killed it, leaving humankind with nothing but weeping martyrs, fear, and shame…. Leave him! You think it’s sport to mock your opponents in this fashion? Let him die quickly, with some honour still intact. … Stop! Let him up. You want your name in ‘The song of Beowulf’? You think it should end with me killed by some Frisian raider with no name? … Only if you kill me. Otherwise, you’re nothing. You think you’re the first to try to kill me, or the hundredth? Well, let me tell you something, Frisian. The gods will not allow my death by your feeble blade. The gods will not allow me to die by a sword or be taken by the sea. The gods will not let me pass in my sleep, ripe with age. Plant your axe here, Finn of Fresia. Take my life. .. You’ll what? Kill me? Well, kill me! Do it! Kill me! Kill me! You know why you can’t kill me, my friend? Because I died many, many years ago when I was young. Give him a gold piece and send him home. He has a story to tell.” Ray Winstone/Beowulf