Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Movie Review: "Thor" by David Pretty

Forsooth!  Greetings, Mine Movie-Centric Midgardians!

Despite the fact that I was a huge Marvel Comics fan as a kid (not to mention genuinely pre-disposed to learning about the Norse mythos) I never really dug the character of Thor.  I guess it was because he was a bit too much like Superman: too powerful, too perfect and too, well, god- like.  A figure that was certainly more difficult to relate to then, say, a Spider-Man, Batman or Wolverine.

Nevertheless, when a friend of mine loaned me a series of comics dealing with the Norse prophecy of Ragnarok (which rendered Thor's bones glass-brittle and presaged his demise at the hands of the Midgard Serpent), something with the character finally clicked for me.  At last Thor finally seemed vulnerable to something, even if it was just to his own fate.

It's good that the film-makers realized this early on and took definitive steps to address it.  In fact, although the titular character spends a sizable chunk of the film looking buff and able to handle himself in a scrap, he's also squarely mired in the undeniable trappings of mortality.

Likely a lot of the credit for this has got to go to director Kenneth Branagh.  Being a former actor, I'm sure he knew that his cast needed as much hubris and challenge as possible to give them (as well as the audience) something to smash their glasses of mead over.  This comes at the expense of the sort of incessant and mindless action that typifies most seasonal Hollywood blockbusters.  Frankly, I'm relieved because this actually might ensure that people will still want to see this film a few years down the road after the hype-machine has blown over.         

Having said that, it's very hard to get a sense of this in the film's slick-looking trailer:

Okay, I know all the crazy spectacle on display there doesn't really convey a lot of the script's humanity, but I assure you, True Believers, it's in there!

The flick begins with a preamble introducing impossibly-hot astrophysicist Jane Foster (the ever-present Natalie Portman) and her scientific team which includes Dr. Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgård) and the winsome Darcy Lewis (Kat Dennings). While chasing a crazy atmospheric disturbance they very nearly turn the exiled and disoriented God of Thunder into an Aryan hood ornament.

We then flash back to see how Goldilocks got to this point. Anthony Hopkins (a stellar choice as Odin, the "All-Father") gets us up to speed with a narration that explains how the Asgardians defeated a race of cruel Frost Giants led by the incongruously-named Laufey (Colm Feore). The giants were intent on conquering several planes of existence, including our own Big Blue Marble.  After the Asgardians lay their enemies low, they repossess the Casket of Ancient Winters which is key to their power.

Fast forward a thousand years later and Odin, now weary and seeking rest in his trademark state of slumber, is prepared to install Thor as his successor.  The ceremony is interrupted, however, when the Frost Giants stage a commando raid but fail to retrieve their artifact of power.  As pissed by the interruption of his big day as he is by the impudence of the attack, Thor decides to take the fight to the Giants against the will of the All-Father.  He enlists the aid of his trickster sibling Loki (Tom Hiddleston) as well as four legendary allies including Fandral (Joshua Dallas), Hogun (Tadanobu Asano), Volstagg (Ray Stevenson) and Sif (Jaimie Alexander) to help him stomp a mud-hole in the Giant's collective asses.

But as if their chilly oversized hosts are expecting their arrival, the Asgardian strike team quickly finds itself in over their helmeted heads. It's only through the intervention of Odin do our heroes escape by the skin of their pearly-white teeth.  In a fit or rage, Odin strips Thor of his powers, sends his hammer Mjolnir hurtling to Earth and then deposits his son right in the path of an onrushing meteorological scramble van.  He also installs his crafty adoptive son Loki as the interim ruler of Asgard.

After nearly smooshing Goldilocks, Jane and company bring him back to town where we're treated to some genuinely funny fish-out-of-water bits as the disposed Odinson copes with the loss of his powers, comes to appreciate the finer points of caffeinated beverages and tries to requisition a horse from a pet shop.      

Meanwhile, S.H.I.E.L.D., the shadowy government agency we last saw in Iron Man 2, shows up at the site where local rednecks have been trying to heft Thor's hammer to a chorus of quadruple hernias and destroyed flatbeds.  They seal the weapon off in a hermetically-sealed insta-base, y'know, the same kind of pre-fab structure that they sealed E.T. up in back in the 80's.

When Thor gets wind of the hammer's convenient proximity (thankfully it came down in Arizona and not in Scandinavia, huh?) he breaks into the base but is horrified to discover that he can't lift the hammer either.  Oh how, oh how will a disgraced Thunder God atone for his past sins and become worthy enough to wield Mjolnir once again?

The film proceeds to answer this, as well as document Loki's concurrent Machiavellian machinations, over the course of the next hour and change.  During this time we really don't witness anything particularly revelatory or original in this story but it's plotted with confidence, the dialogue is serviceable and the performances are uniformly good.

Speaking of, if Chris Hemsworth didn't exist, I believe that the film's producers would have to have commissioned his construction in some sort of genetic factory run by Lockheed Martin (all this, presumably because no-one had the guts to kidnap Alexander "Erik" Skarsgard from the set of True Blood.)  Indeed, I'm sure the female contingent in the audience (not to mention a disproportionate amount of males as well) echoed Darcy's sentiments when she mutters in a daze: "Yknow, for a crazy homeless person, he's pretty cut."  In addition to having abs you could grate a bowling ball on, Hemsworth's showing is filled with gregarious, charismatic confidence.  He even acquits himself very nicely in his few emotional scenes, such as when Loki visits him in lock up and lies about their father's untimely demise.

He's also given a lot of personality nuances to work with, relatively speaking.  This Thor starts off as an insolent,  hot-headed, vainglorious douchebag who has to learn temperance, self-sacrifice and nobility.  Only then will he be worthy enough to recover his hammer and the mantle of the Thunder God.  As I said before, this path to redemption isn't particularly mind-blowing, but thanks to the charisma of the principal actors, the ride is quite enjoyable.

And thank the Gods that Hemsworth wasn't ask to use Thor's traditional and borderline goofy "ancientspeak" which would have seen him deliver such inadvertently funny lines as "Verily! Thor, Odinson, shall vanquish the foul beasts with mine sacred hammer Mjolnir!"  Yeah, that would have gotten old in about five minutes...

I've gotta say, though, I feel that the film's M.V.P. performance has to go to Tom Hiddleston as Loki.  Even going into the film knowing what sort of nogoodnik the script would turn this character into, I was still sucked in by his proficient fibbery and subtle, yet effective, ability to steer events towards his desires.  He's genuinely slippery and devious without being over the top and I'm delighted that he's been tapped to be a foil for The Avengers next year.    

Anthony Hopkins just seems like no-brainer casting to me.  He's the kind of guy who could project a commanding air even while reading excerpts from The Rules According to J-Woww.  The only other person I could think of that could possibly have made for a better Odin is Max Von Sydow after a month's worth of weight gain powder.  Frankly, I'm just pleased that the script actually gave him something pivotal to do.

As for the film's mortal contingent, Natalie Portman is fun to watch, as always.  Her deliveries are often inordinately thoughtful and I quite enjoyed her "blink or you'll miss it" expressions or quirky line readings.  The one thing the script does, which is almost verboten now in modern films, is show Jane get flustered in Thor's presence.

I think it's rather brave that the script isn't afraid to depict this supposedly brilliant astrophysicist acting like a dorky fourteen year old girl when the Thunder God is in her midst.  It's an undeniably honest moment that, to me, doesn't denigrate the character, but actually makes her seem more real.  In a more cliched film, she'd be an Ice Queen until the last reel when she inexplicably starts making out with him.      

As a side note, occasionally Natalie's own thunder gets stolen by the super-cute Kat Dennings as Darcy.  Every once and awhile screenwriters Ashley Miller, Zach Stentz and Don Payne allow her to pop in with some comedic aside just to remind us that she's still there, even if the script has lamentably dispensed with her.  Rounding out the cast, Stellan Skarsgård brings us some Norse street credibility and also gets an added bump of importance in an intriguing post-credits sequence.  The Asgardian warriors are also well-represented with Ray Stevenson (the best thing in the the otherwise turd-like Punisher: War Zone) standing out as the gregarious and gluttonous Volstagg.  

But unfortunately, all is not well in the state of Asgard.  In fact, the almost entirely CGI-rendered realm is often woefully cartoonish-looking.  Although the film-makers get props for not making the Bifrost Bridge look like an emblem for next year's San Francisco Gay Pride Parade, the design and execution of Asgard (as well as the Frost Giant's realm of Jotunheim) is consistently murky, dark, joyless and cluttered-looking.

I also thought that a lot of the costumes looked pretty crappy, just a few steps up from a kid's Halloween outfit.  I really wish the film's production designers had gone with a more organic feel.  It gives the world of Asgard and it's inhabitants a vaguely sci-fi look that I thought was tonally inappropriate.  Mercifully, the effects do come through when they're really needed, such as during the Warrior's scrap with Loki's attack dog, the Destroyer.  In fact, when Thor is re-united with his beloved hammer the audience feels a giddy thrill as we get to witness the full extent of our hero's ass-kicking potential.

Even if the film's visual quotient is pretty weak sometimes, the film is strong enough where it counts: in the self-assured story, good performances and the redemptive conclusion.  Although the script's sense of inevitability come across as a bit too conventional for some, I though it oddly comforting.  Kinda like the inevitable march of destiny that a lot of the original ancient myths used as their own bread and butter.

I guess the highest praise I can give to Thor is that the film stands a good arm's length away from the childish disaster that it could have been.  In fact, the film's deliberate pace, investment in its character development and full-blooded performances make it a refreshingly substantial summer actioner.  

   Tilt: up.  

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