In the beginning, there were those 1950s 3-D glasses with the blue-and-red lenses, the ones that brought you such cheesy fun-house miracles as the Creature from the Black Lagoon swooping his claw out at the audience. Alfred Hitchcock enhanced the technology, using it to greater human effect in Dial M for Murder, but after the early '60s, the 3-D craze more or less faded away until the age of IMAX, when we all put on sci-fi headset goggles to gawk at larger-than-life images of dinosaurs, sharks, and Siegfried & Roy.
So you know that you've entered a new era when you go to one of the 650 theaters where Beowulf, Robert Zemeckis' soulfully spectacular medieval monster movie, is playing in 3-D (it's showing in good old two dimensions at other theaters), and you're handed a pair of glasses that look like something out of a Tom Cruise nostalgia convention. The lightweight specs never have to be adjusted (for once!), and they don't give you a headache. The best news is that the film makes good on the promise of its technology. In Beowulf, the images are built to pop, and not just because swords, spears, tentacles, blood, and monster drool keep bursting out at the audience. Every shot of castles and midnight woods, of treasure-filled caves is built for maximum sculptural luster.
Zemeckis also upgrades the ''performance capture'' technique (animation wedded to actors' facial movements) he employed two years ago in The Polar Express. There, the characters looked like dead-eyed rubber dolls shot full of Botox. They're now closer to being expressive humans, whether it's the dissolute Danish king Hrothgar a dead ringer for Anthony Hopkins, who plays him or Beowulf, the warrior legend voiced with blokey gruffness by Ray Winstone, his feral stare morphed into that of a squinty-eyed Viking hunk. Beowulf is summoned to kill the marauding creature Grendel, who is one grotesquely amazing beast a big, misshapen humanoid glob who looks like he's been roasted on a spit and half-eaten. (He's like Gollum painted by Francis Bacon.) His face-off with a naked Beowulf has the wonder of a Ray Harryhausen creature feature.
According to the ancient poem, which the script by Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary follows very loosely, Beowulf must then confront Grendel's mother, a mystic siren who rises out of her cave in the person of a nude Angelina Jolie (are you sensing a theme here?), dripping water off her body like golden chocolate. (I thought: They just added $30 million to the gross.) It's here that Beowulf acquires an honest touch of intrigue, as our hero is revealed to be less than noble. Yet I won't overstate the drama. Beowulf is a solemnly gorgeous, at times borderline stolid piece of Tolkien-with-a-joystick mythology. It dares to be quiet, which is worthy of respect, but there would be little to it without the battles, like the hypnotic fight with a dive-bombing dragon, in which the aging Beowulf uses an ax to attach himself to the creature's hide and, in a thrilling sacrifice, does everything in his power to squelch its heart. Now that's fun in three dimensions. B+