Robert Zemeckis’ high-tech “performance capture” adaptation of the Old English poem turns actors–Ray Winstone, Anthony Hopkins, Robin Wright Penn, John Malkovich, Angelina Jolie–into rubbery action figures. Only Crispin Glover, covered in a disgusting, festering texture, manages to infuse some sort of twisted soul into his Grendel. I saw this in 3-D, which is sorta groovy if you’ve taken some preventive aspirin, but it also further increases the sense of artificiality. The action sequences have all the excitement of a video game cut scene.

Beowulf is only one of a slew of recent movies that wouldn’t have been possible without The Lord of the Rings, and Zemeckis lifts dozens of shots directly from Peter Jackson. Of course, Tolkien in turn would be unthinkable without the Anglo-Saxon poem — and so we come full circle.

Long ago, in the Age of Heroes, I wrote an essay about “hyperfiction” that used the cheap carnival effects of early 3-D movies as metaphor for the teething troubles of a new form. I was tickled to see that even at this late stage, 3-D still means “Poles in Your Face,” along with all manners of swords, naked torsos, dripping saliva, and flaming arrows. It’s true that Neil Gaiman’s script manages to put a somewhat interesting spin on the original epic, but first and foremost, Beowulf is self-satisfied spectacle. I’d rather play God of War. Opens Friday.

Beowulf. Robert Zemeckis, 2007. **