Monday 3 October 2011

Thor (2011)

Director: Kenneth Branagh
Stars: Chris Hemsworth and Anthony Hopkins
It didn't take a lot to realise that I'm hardly the intended audience for this film. I asked a question of everyone who saw it early on that nobody understood, even those who were paid to review it. I simply wanted to know how Tadanobu Asano did in his first English language film. Having now seen Thor, I can understand the blank faces I got in response. He is utterly wasted in this film, far beyond anything I could have imagined. If viewers didn't know who he was, which is pretty likely for anyone not up on modern Japanese cinema, this certainly wouldn't have helped. He's almost not in the film at all and when he is, he's doing precisely nothing. Given that his next English language film is a screen adaptation of the game of Battleships (no, I'm not kidding), I can hardly be hopeful for a new international career, let alone my dream of seeing him playing opposite Johnny Depp in a quirky and artful drama. What a heartbreaking waste of talent.

The biggest problem Thor has, and it has many, is that Tadanobu Asano is not alone. I spent the near two hour running time being mildly disappointed, even though I came in with precisely no expectations, not having any background with the Marvel character at all. Yet when the ride was over and my brain reengaged, mild disappointment gradually built to the level of bewilderment. The more I thought about Thor, the less there was to think about. It reached the point where I'm not sure that there's anything at all in this film of any substance, leaving it as a two hour trailer for The Avengers. It isn't just Tadanobu Asano, it's everything else. Everyone and everything in this film is a heartbreaking waste of talent. I'm a long-standing fan of B-movie exploitation and yet I can't think of a single film that wasted my time more. I've seen worse films, to be sure, but I enjoyed the majority far more than this. This was literally two hours of my life I won't get back.

The story begins in Puente Antigua, as a continuation from the end of Iron Man 2, a capable if predictable Marvel blockbuster, as Thor arrives on the planet Earth to encounter a strange breed of human: field astrophysicists. Then we hop back to 965 AD so Anthony Hopkins can provide a primer on Norse mythology: frost giants, Asgard, aliens, Mjolnir, the whole thing. Yeah, aliens. These Norse gods are aliens who just hop down to Earth once in a while from Asgard to play at being gods. Earth is one of the nine realms, each accessible through some sort of Stargate. It's all very dark, very CGI and very Star Trek. Kenneth Branagh, a surprising choice of director to shoot a Marvel blockbuster, doesn't have the epic flair that Peter Jackson demonstrated in Lord of the Rings or the ability to focus on detail like Zack Snyder in 300. A few shots suggest we're in a spaceship but it's just the camera movements.

Anthony Hopkins looks like Anthony Hopkins in an Odin suit. Sometimes being a star can only be an obstacle to a performance. He does what you expect Hopkins to do, but by the end of this film I found that I hadn't disliked one of his performances this much since Red Dragon. In this version of Norse mythology, Odin, the king of Asgard, is the mighty warrior you might expect, but one who has fallen back into being a soft spoken peacemaker of a Norse god. I was waiting for him to cry havoc and let loose the berserkers, only to materialise a table to sit round and compromise. In comparison, his son Thor, about to take over as king, struts to the throne as if he was a WWE wrestler approaching the ring. Chris Hemsworth plays him rather like Brad Pitt would play Iron Man, only a little less flippant. I expected the We Will Rock You chant from A Knight's Tale. His brother Loki is jealous, scheming and ultimately forgettable. He may be the least villain ever.

The setup, within this shiny but obviously entirely CGI environment, is predictable. Loki invites the frost giants to show up and interrupt the ceremony, all on the sly of course. Odin forbids any reaction but Thor takes the Stargate to Jotunheim to piss them off anyway and his father has to calm things down. This action is enough to shift Thor in his esteem from his imminent heir to an undesirable element who he promptly strips of his powers and hurls down to Earth for the field astrophysicists to hit with their van. He does throw his mighty hammer Mjolnir after him, with an accompanying oath that its power will only manifest when his son is once more worthy. Even as this CGI action unfolds, I couldn't help but wonder that if it was this easy to outmanoeuver Thor, just why Loki hadn't got rid of him years before. However thinking about plot holes in this film is a dangerous business: there are more holes than plot.

The story from here is pretty obvious. Thor goes to get his hammer but SHIELD gets there first. Loki plots and schemes. Odin is removed from the field of play. Thor's buddies go to help him. Cue the battle. Cue the redemption scene. Cue the comeback. Cue the credits. It's all acutely disappointing, all the more so because there's no attempt to build any substance around it. Just as Asgard is a shiny bundle of CGI that never contains anyone without a direct purpose for being in a scene, Earth is apparently a single street in a single town entirely surrounded by desert, in which only the main characters have any function and then only very specific ones. Jane Foster, the lead astrophysicist, is there only as a token love interest. Her mentor, Dr Erik Selvig, is there because he knows Norse mythology. Her assistant, Darcy Lewis, is there for comic relief, which, unbelievably, amounts to one poor joke repeated twice. SHIELD are there to look impressive.
To be fair, the actors were capable, however dumb their parts were. Natalie Portman is solid as the love interest, but casting Natalie Portman as merely a love interest is like taking Mjolnir to crack a nut. She is painfully wasted in a throwaway role that feels all the more so because she does everything she can to embue it with meaning. Her acting chops merely highlight how the many other talented actors in this film didn't do the same, through their own fault or not. Rene Russo, Stellan SkarsgÄrd and Tadanobu Asano are massive talents who get varying degrees of not a heck of a lot to do. Kat Dennings brings a weak periodic laugh but she's worth more than that. In this film only Thor really gets more to do than the extras who run around Puente Antigua looking scared, and they are only a hair's breadth above the frost giants, who are suitably sinister, but like everything in Jotunheim nothing more than shiny and meaningless CGI.

That leaves Hemsworth, Hopkins and Hiddleston, a triple H if you will, someone who would have looked a little less Hollywood than Hemsworth. Fortunately he does a decent job, once he wakes up in the hospital on Earth. Before that he's acutely annoying, but as a stranger in a strange land he's less cocky and more arrogant in a good sense, simply aware of how powerful he is. Depth arrives when he can't pick up Mjolnir, as that awareness falls away and he becomes fragile and unsure, obviously alien emotions to him. As the film revolves entirely around him, his showing is an anchor for the threadbare storyline. Without it, this would have been even more lacking than it is. Certainly Odin and Loki are nothing to focus on. Hopkins is unable to do anything with a bad part except make it worse and Tom Hiddleston, as Loki, is stuck playing a weak villain who gets weak scenes to be weak in. It's hardly surprising to find that he's weak and utterly forgettable.

Bizarrely the only character I can praise is that of Heimdall, guardian of the Bifrost, the Stargate that serves as the public transit system between worlds. This is bizarre because while actors like Ray Stevenson may look like Norse gods, only Heimdall feels like one, yet he's played by a black English actor, Idris Elba. It's a strange casting choice that is wrong on every level there is, except the actual performance that Elba delivers. He provides the only epicness that the film can boast. He epitomises timeless power, something sadly lacking in a film rooted in Norse mythology and shot by Kenneth Branagh who guided many of the actors through references to Shakespeare. It's amazing how empty this film is given that its character inspirations come from archetypes like Falstaff, Cassius and Edmund from King Lear, along with Peter O'Toole and Errol Flynn. Most took their roles because of Branagh's presence, some before there was a script. That speaks volumes.

Perhaps most surprising was that for a summer blockbuster, especially one based on a Marvel comic book character, there's not a lot of actual action, and when it arrives it's embarrassing. In the early scenes, everything is CGI and hard to see. Towards the end, when the film equivalent of a boss arrives to devastate the town, like a '50s sci fi monster, the battle is quick and lacking. Of the five warriors there, only three get shots in. The victory makes no sense. Even the moment in which Thor proves himself inevitably worthy was played badly. It read to me far more that the superhero in this film really isn't Thor at all, it's his hammer Mjolnir. It's at once Superman's cape and Batman's gadgets, but I never got the impression that Clark Kent or Bruce Wayne would die without those artefacts. Without Mjolnir, Thor is less than nothing. There's a final battle with Loki which shows off more CGI and relies on a deus ex machina. It's all embarrassing.

What surprises me is how much success Thor has managed to achieve, namely a gross of almost $450m and apparent critical acclaim from numerous fronts, including many who I'd expected would have hated it. Last time a superhero movie was made by a director pulled from the world of international art cinema rather than that of Hollywood blockbusters, the fans rebelled. Many good things have been said about Ang Lee's Hulk, but I haven't heard any from comic book fans. Here, those comic book fans seem to like it, if not outright love it and ache for the inevitable sequel. Roger Ebert was one of a few detracting critics, claiming that it failed as a movie but succeeded as marketing. Other critics were far more favourable, Richard Roeper even describing it as 'the most entertaining superhero debut since the original Spider-Man'. Adding my small voice to such esteemed company, I hated it with a passion that I haven't felt in a long time.

1 comment:

jervaise brooke hamster said...

Hal, 6 weeks without a reveiw again my old mate, whats your excuse this time ?.