Thursday, July 30, 2015

Project Terrible: Thor: Hammer of the Gods

Welcome back to Project Terrible! Today's film comes to me from our new guy, Christian, of A Life in 24 FPS.

I love mythology, so of course I was excited horrified to see that his pick for me was:
Thor: Hammer of the Gods! I already long for Chris Hemsworth.

Holy crap.

Thor: Hammer of the Gods concerns a group of Vikings who may or may not be (but probably aren't, except maybe they are) the Norse gods, who land on an island called Midgard in a quest to find a new kingdom. There, they encounter danger, and one of them--the warrior Thor, played by Zachary Ty Bryan of Home Improvement fame--has visions suggesting that a powerful treasure and a great destiny awaits them. The island, though, is infested by werewolves, and if the wolves don't get them, their own infighting might.

So first off, I do have to note that as strange as it is to hear "Thor vs. Werewolves," werewolves are a thing in Norse mythology. So the movie is on pretty solid mythological ground there.

It...pretty much falls off a mythological cliff everywhere else, though. But I'll get to that.

This is not a complicated film. At heart, it's a horror/suspense movie with a touch of action, based around the tried-and-true principle of putting a bunch of characters into a closed environment (in this case, because their boat is stolen) and having a nasty threat pick them off one by one. That film type has worked for years upon years. In this case, there's a slight twist in that the victims are Vikings, and there are some overtones of Fate and Destiny and Reincarnation and such, but I've seen this film before. Several times.

Let's start with what this film does right, which is astonishingly a fair bit.

First, it bears noting that the opening sequence, with some cool, low-animation kind of medieval-looking artwork, is pretty darn nice. I thought that looked great! The still shot above doesn't do it justice, really.

The overall plot concept isn't all that bad. Take Viking warriors, strand them on an island, and have them face a particularly nasty threat that even they, as some of history's most feared warriors, are hard-pressed to battle. Give them a reason to make progress rather than just fortifying a location, and you have the makings of a decent enough film. It can work.

The characters, too...well, the main ones, anyway, are moderately interesting. There's some good interplay between Thor, Ulfrich, Baldur, and Freyja (yeah, the names...I'll get to it, promise), with a decent enough plot of Thor, Ulfrich, and Baldur being brothers, but Ulfrich doesn't like the other two and they don't like him. Fairly obvious where that goes, but for a while the film pretty nicely avoids it and kind of shows a few more noble sides to Ulfrich, so his inevitable...

I really don't have to issue a spoiler warning for this, do I? You know what happens when there's three noble brothers and one of them is an outsider.

...his inevitable betrayal means a little more. He's shown worrying for his kin, and wanting to die an honorable death in battle against the enemy, and even making some pretty good suggestions tactically. The downside is that plotwise his betrayal kind of comes out of nowhere and the villain doesn't feel particularly clever in making it happen, but I do appreciate the effort to make him more than just outright evil.

I rather liked Baldur, as well--he's portrayed as a leader whose chief concern is for his men, and he frequently nicely shows the inner conflict of dealing with Thor and Ulfrich's clashes and of weighing going into the unknown to save his men versus the risk of losing more of them in the process.

Most of the acting is...decent. There's not really anyone who goes too over the top, or does anything ridiculous...and no one really feels wooden, either. I felt Zachary Ty Bryan's performance as Thor was a bit off, wasn't really bad, just...strangely subdued. Sue me, I'm used to Chris Hemsworth's raw unadulterated awesomeness. I can kind of complain about Hel and Freyja as well, on similar grounds--they just don't seem to pull out enough emotion, though they aren't just reciting lines, either. The biggest complaint I have is that half the characters in the movie, especially Bryan's Thor, are trying to do Chris Hemsworth's Thor voice, and not doing nearly as good a job. You know the voice I'm talking about--speak in a deep, full tone, pronounce things regally...that voice. Yeah, these guys can't do it any better than I could.

I need a real Thor break.

Okay, back to this crap.

I also have to note that this film is actually...pretty excellently shot, overall. Nice lighting, nice goes beyond "no real problems" and into "this is very good" territory, technically. They even pull off some great use of slow-mo to accentuate moves in combat (unfortunately, combat is very much not worthy of this honor, but I'll get to that). I'm quite impressed with the film from the visual standpoint--not an effects standpoint, but the basic visuals.

Now, what's not so good?

Everything else.

This is such a dull film. That's my biggest complaint. It seems to take forever to get going. A slow burn can work in a good epic film, but this is, again, just basically a Werewolves Hunting Vikings movie, mythological names aside. The first real fight scene--as in, the first fight scene where you actually see people fight--happens roughly 33 minutes into the movie. The film is about 1 hour and 20 minutes long. Several people die before that point, mind...but they die off-camera. You're lucky if you even get to see their corpses most of the time. Until the 33 minute mark, all violence is demonstrated by a few people posing in vaguely Vikingish manner with weapons, then a cut, and then you just hear them dying.

It gets worse, though, because at the 33 minute mark you see why most of the violence to that point was off camera. It's because nobody in the movie can convincingly swing a sword. At best--at best--these people look like they're very obviously cooperating with their opponents, aiming directly for the parrying weapon instead of trying to hit around the guard and all. That's as good as it gets. More commonly, they don't even manage to convincingly swing--I don't mean "in a fight," I mean "swing at all". I swear some of them just kind of vaguely wave their swords in the general direction of their foe, without any force or purpose behind them at all. Constantly. It's really, really bad.

Fortunately, Ulfrich, Baldur, and Thor are played by guys who can at least manage sword swings. They still clearly work together even if they're fighting each other, but their scenes work a little. What's very unfortunate about Ulfrich and Thor's fights, though, is that those are when the movie decides to go for dramatic combat slow motion...and it always seems to be at the moment when someone misses by a mile. They're going for that thing where the sword narrowly misses someone's face or someone gets knocked on the chin and the action slows for a just a moment and then speeds up again, but it always seems to highlight the worst-looking parts of the fight. This is a movie that has the technical skill to be a pretty nice action film, but lacks the fight choreography and trained swordsmen.

There are several lengthy fight scenes in the film once it decides to start, y'know, actually showing the action, and all of them range from middling to very poor. The closest to acceptable is probably a late-film Thor vs. Ulfrich fight, and even that has some very questionable moments in it (notably an ill-advised "superjump" shot with Thor that just looks outright stupid), though it has some pretty decent moves as well (a pretty nice dodge and slash from Thor at another point). Overall, the quality of the action hurts the film a great deal. This film needed better fights.

What else hurts the film? The werewolves, and the other monsters. No, not the idea of them--the way they look. They just don't look intimidating at all. I think it's the heads, mostly--they look too big for the body. It looks very much like a normal guy just wearing a wolf head mask, which is not the intent here. They look silly, and...look, if you can't do monster effects or costumes particularly well, maybe try just...making a film about Vikings fighting humans?

Okay, the lighting's a little poor sometimes too.
I mentioned before that this film just seems to take too long to get going--but it really just seems to take too long with just about everything. There's a lot of backtracking in the film's plot, with the characters returning multiple times to the village and even going all the way back to shore at one point. This would be a stronger film, I think, if the characters aimed for the mountain from near the very beginning of the movie, instead of waiting until they were near halfway through the film to decide to go there. It would give the film momentum. Instead, it feels like the film kind of...isn't sure which way it's going, and finally decides by the time most viewers would be well past checking out. Again, this would actually be fine if we were talking about a deep, epic plot where characters might have interesting options or where the characters deciding whether to go on the journey or not was a big conflict in itself, but...this is a Vikings vs. Werewolves movie. Hurry them along.

But aside from the pace of the film in general, the other huge complaint I have is the use of mythology. Nearly every character in this film has a mythological name. I guess the idea is that these maybe are the Norse gods, but reborn as mortals or something like that. But it's really strange. They know Odin is a god, and they know about Valhalla, and the Valkyries, and Fenrir / Fenris and Jormungandr (both of whom feature in the film). But none of them seem to recognize that any of the crew are named after gods, even though all of them are except possibly Ulfrich. I can't find a reference to that name in the pantheon, but I could be wrong. But every other character? Every single other character? Either a god or a monster. Thor. Baldur. Freyja. Sif. Heimdall. Hel. Garm. Hati. Skoll. Heck, they even pull in poor Hodr (or Hodur, or Hod), the blind god who killed Baldur in Norse mythology.

The problem?

Basically none of them save Thor and Freyja really have any ties to their mythological traits. Freyja has the ability to foretell things (kind of), Thor is a great warrior and has ties to the hammer Mjollnir that the characters end up pursuing...but the rest...they're just names, really. I guess you could call Baldur being a ruler a reference, except that Baldur, in mythology, is most famous for 1) being invulnerable and 2) getting killed anyway. Hodr, killer of Baldur...well, that would've been a nice reference to throw in there, but nope, he just gets offed unceremoniously at the camp. Heimdall? Watchman of the gods? Yeah, no, just another minor character. In something that is sure to annoy Al, since he played Vali in an RPG of mine, Vali shows up not as an avenging god of any kind but as an annoying crazy hermit whose only purpose in the film is to lead Thor to the cave the hammer is in and imply that he wants the hammer, but...nothing ever comes of it.

Here's the thing. You can't do this. You can't just use names from mythology and not actually tie them to anything. It's utterly ridiculous. If you're referencing something, reference it! Either tie in the old stories, or subvert them somehow. If you're doing a story about the gods being reborn as mortals--which I'm not clear if they actually were or not--do that story. Have all the gods matter to the tale, and show their traits or twists on them. What if instead of killing Baldur, Hodr gives his life to save him? What if Heimdall's watchfulness saves the group from an ambush, or he believes he's able to see everything but misses something critical? If you're going to use the names, really use them! Otherwise they might as well be named Joe, Dave, Steve, Eddie, Mark, Ben, Elizabeth, Marge, and Juniper!

If I looked like that I'd be mad as Hel too.
The other problem that arises from this? For most of the movie, Thor has these visions of a mighty warrior wielding a powerful hammer and the power of lightning, fighting a giant serpent. He thinks they're visions of Baldur's future, believing his brother is the only one great enough for such deeds. The trouble is that there is no way--no way--that this little "mystery" works in the context of this film. This is a movie referencing the god Thor, with a character named Thor, and the title is Thor: Hammer of the Gods. Thor is, and has been for decades at least, one of the most well-known mythological figures in the world. Even if I allow the slight credit of this film being made in 2009, two years before the Marvel Thor film came out, the symbolism of Thor and his mighty hammer wielding the power of lightning and thunder is very familiar (for one, the Marvel comics character first showed up in 1962, but the figure has been used in countless images, advertisements, and oh-by-the-way, Thursday means Thor's Day). So the concept of building a film around a mystery of which of the characters, Thor or Baldur, is actually the hammer-wielding, lightning-calling warrior in a dream? That's just flat-out doomed to failure. It might have worked if the "mortal forms" didn't have the mythological names, so it was, say, Fritjof and Gudmund, both warriors, who might be the hammer-wielding god, and then late in the film we find out which. Instead, it falls very flat.

Ohmygosh! Thor is Thor! I never would've guessed!
Seriously, it's like "Oh, who will wield Excalibur? Will it be Arthur or Percival?" Come on!

Overall...Thor: Hammer of the Gods is a pretty awful film. It's just...boring, overall, with some decent acting and good filming but a dull plot, horrid action, and a drastic misuse of mythology. It was a chore to sit through, especially with some pretty ridiculous focal points for the plot. You don't necessarily need to hold 100% to mythology...but if you're using it, you need to use it. make a terrible film.

Watching this film is like taking a mythical hammer to the skull.

1 comment:

  1. You'd definitely have a better time with either 'Vikingdom' (which features some guys trying to kill Thor) or 'Almighty Thor' (which is so bad it is funny) than this one.

    To be honest, I tried watching it on TV one day. It was so listless and dull that I just couldn't be bothered for very long.