It takes time to get used to the plasticky CGI, but after a while it seems right for the other-worldliness of the time. The latest incarnation of Beowulf turns out to be a fascinating discourse on the representation of gender. If the original poem is about what happens when a society fails to support its leader, then this is about the inevitable failure of phallic masculinity.
In Beowulf’s battle with Grendel he is naked. However, his cock and balls are always strategically hidden behind something; was this to avoid on R/15 certificate or to prevent ‘manhood’ appearing ridiculous? That is, when I man is flying around gymnastically there’s bound to be some undignified flapping going on. Also, as Richard Dyer suggested, men can never really live up to the idea of the phallus as it is forever hard. Of course, Beowulf’s sword stands in for the phallus but one touch from the voluptuous Grendel’s mum (can a mother have ever been represented so sexily) – Jolie – and it dissolves. Contrary to the original, Beowulf lies when he says he dispatched this particular monster; he is unmanned by her femininity (yes, defined in the fashion of patriarchy, by her curves and breasts).
Beowulf’s lack of masculinity is also underlined by his lack of heir when he dies; sacrificing himself for his wife and young lover. As befits a 21st century text, women have a higher profile in this version; in the 1100ADish one they are pretty much reduced to serving alcohol and being regal. However, the male carousing here is shown to be an empty experience. Beowulf, despite his breast-beating, or because of, is a melancholy character finding all the heroism an, essentially, empty experience but apparently unable to consummate his love/lust for his queen. This dark heart of masculinity is also evident in Hrothgar’s suicide (not in the original).
The trend to using CGI in a non-realist fashion seems to be continuing; Sin City, 300… In drawing attention to itself maybe it is trying to regain the ‘wow’ factor it had in its early days as audiences have become blase about the ‘miracles’ it performs. Whilst not as visually impressive as 300, Beowulf is far more interesting a film than the eariler film’s hysterical performance of manliness.