Who among us, if presented with a photograph of our significant other in another’s embrace, would fully trust the evidence of our own eyes? Not these days, we wouldn’t. Not when we see actresses on every magazine cover with heads digitally stitched onto someone else’s airbrushed body. Not when a six year old can remove the red eye, sharpen, and brighten a snapshot with Photoshop on our home computer.
The photographic image – which was once light gathered by a lens and chemically exposed on a piece of silver-backed paper or celluloid – has become destabilized. We can never fully relax; we have to interrogate our film images in a way that’s very new. The implications for the movies are profound.
In Beowulf – very loosely based on the poem – the actors have been supplanted by computer-generated facsimiles. Let’s agree on the term "avatar". Take Anthony Hopkins, whose avatar is the King, haunted by embracing a demon many years ago and begetting a monster that now terrorizes the kingdom. To capture Hopkins’s performance, the actor wore a rubber wet suit on his body and electrodes on his face, while a computer recorded every nuance.
In theory. In fact, motion capture in 2007 makes for very stiff body language. The facial expressions, too, are wooden, with a slackness through the cheeks and lips, as if another actor were wearing an Anthony Hopkins mask and lip syncing. Good animation isn’t about acquisition; it’s about an animator’s imagination and skill invoking the truth of a thing.
Ray Winstone, whose avatar is Beowulf, the brave warrior from across the sea who has come to kill the monster Grendel, has a flabby body. But we see Beowulf in all his naked glory – minus a puerile game of hide the genitals – and there is not an ounce of fat on him. John Malkovich, who plays an oily advisor who has it in for Beowulf for reasons left murky, is, as an actor, fuller of tics than a grandfather clock. His avatar fares the best; when you dumb down the performance, since the original was exaggerated, something comes through.
So the avatars aren’t quite there yet. Angelina Jolie, who plays the demon lover, whose face and body have been scanned and enhanced to a shiny naked perfection (save a few naughty bits), is a cartoon too cold to be much of a turn-on; she’s too smooth. I have to wonder: why spend millions, when a real cartoonist like Ralph Bakshi can suggest sexiness with the stroke of a pen in Fritz the Cat or Cool World ?
Ken Turan, film critic for the L.A. Times and NPR, in his crusty review, complained that the director, Robert Zemeckis, who also made Forrest Gump , has now been completely consumed by his own tools. Turan should take another look at the film he venerates ( Gump ), which begins and ends with a CG feather, and has hundreds of CG shots in between, including a digitally-amputated Gary Sinise. The fact is, the cutting edge of technology is where Zemeckis has always been most comfortable. It’s the shakier half of his artistic stake.
In the end, Beowulf is a blind alley. Though its hammy dialog and pretty good story make for a film of acceptable momentum, it’s not got the emotive quality that only real performers can bring. That is, so far. We can still tell the difference between an actor and an avatar, and I’m tempted to say that technological advances are like Xeno’s Paradox, always halving the distance to the real thing, never arriving. But things are certainly getting uncanny, and I still haven’t seen the film in 3D – the subject of a future review in mid-December. Maybe the real reason so many of us critics are skeptical of avatars is that we’re trying to reassure ourselves, whistling past the graveyard of old paradigms.