For all the visual wizardry at work on screen in Robert Zemeckis’ “Beowulf,” it’s a wonder I found myself leaving the theater feeling lifeless and unenthusiastic. Certainly, here we are at the helm of a true technical achievement in cinema, a complex and rigorous endeavor that marries the real and the digital with the kind of detail that makes its nearest cousin, “The Polar Express,” look almost like a dress rehearsal in comparison. But perhaps that is the root of the conflict at hand; for every whisker and every pore that is visible on the face of an actor who has been completely altered by the multi-dimensional capabilities of a computer-generated image, there is a facial expression, a sign of human feeling and even basic mannerism that is lost in the system. Characters do not pass very basic plausibility tests because there’s no outlet for them to warrant it – they can’t be merely cartoons because we know there is flesh behind the gimmick, and we can’t accept them as human beings because they appear to lack very basic facial functions. Are they supposed to look authentic? Are we supposed to consciously acknowledge that they are thespians simply being represented on-screen by elaborate shell casings? The movie offers no answers, a terrible dilemma at a time when this bizarre and uncultivated sub-genre is in desperate need of rationale.
“The Golden Compass” represents cinema fantasy at its most striking and fearsome, underlining the genius of the modern moviemaker as technology grows and continues to allow him or her to test boundaries of realism without surrendering to obvious visual deceit. If only the screenwriters shared those ambitions. No, it’s not as if we as adults are the wrong target audience for a movie in which the hero is a young girl; au contraire, the source material, penned by the talented Phillip Pullman, is both brilliant and frightening in the way it allows dread to creep up on its young stars, forcing them to adopt adult roles in a story way too dark for innocent children to play in. A fully satisfying screen endeavor would sneer at the opportunity to dumb down Pullman’s narrative maturity in order to create broader appeal, but that alas is not the central mission in this venture. Absent from the film is the deeply political subtext of its foundation, the glaring void filled by ambitious special effects and colorful canvases meant to distract audiences from the notion that they are watching a story with its roots firmly planted in something much more tragic than those involved might be willing to admit.