Thursday, 22 September 2011

Thor (2011)

Kenneth Branagh’s reassertion of his claim to a place in the movie mainstream after some notable failures to make good on his very great talent, Thor seems at once peculiar and perfect fare for one of British cinema’s most energetic yet frustrating directors. Peculiar, in that it’s a white bread comic-book adaptation, quite different to Branagh’s earlier multiplex tilt, the messy and frantically revisionist Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1994), but also perfect in that its essential themes and imagery carry with them a mythical weight and strength of conflict entirely apt for Branagh’s interests and talents. The result doesn’t quite pack Shakespearean force, as, like several of the recent Marvel Studios products, it tries to sustain at least one extra plot thread too many, causing the storyline to remain a bit diffuse. And yet Branagh manages to make the material coalesce into a visually grandiose and surprisingly compact fantasy adventure, quite superior in storytelling and investment of character to just about all of the recent superhero franchise entries. The difference is especially apparent in the scenes relating to Greg Coulson’s Agent Clark and the SHIELD digressions in comparison to the dreadful shoehorning of those aspects in Iron Man 2; here Clark is faintly menacing and distinctly no-nonsense. Scenes depicting Thor’s rampaging through SHIELD operatives whilst being sized up by Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) take on, rather than the air of overloaded franchise service, aspects of a broadening world that the characters barely yet understand, even if it all still only serves essentially to soak up screen time that could be better spent deepening the angst of its suddenly mortal and bereft hero, and giving the villain’s aims and motives clearer attention. Nonetheless, whilst Branagh doesn’t make much of the mostly by-rote action set-pieces, surprisingly for the guy who did the still startling Agincourt battle of Henry V (1989), having a director with a genuinely developed sense of dramatic nuance permeates the film in finite ways to make it look, feel, sound more solid and, consequentially and contradictorily, thus more fantastic. 

Here the gods of Asgard are almost explicitly characterised as aliens with such sophisticated resources that the difference between magic and science is not worth arguing for them. Aging king Odin (Anthony Hopkins) is about to hand over his power to his eldest son Thor (Chris Hemsworth) when an old conflict rears its head again. Odin’s long-ago war against the Frost Giants of another world within Odin’s domain has resulted in still-bubbling enmity, with a raiding party of the blue-skinned enemies trying to snatch back a totemic power source Odin confiscated from them; and that was not the only keepsake of the war he kept hold of. Thor, eager for a bit of thud and blunder, adopts an aggressive policy and attacks the Frost Giants’ world of Jodenheim. He confronts their king Laufey (Colm Fiore) but almost gets himself and his fraternal warrior-lords Volstagg (Ray Stevenson), Hogun (Tadanobu Asano), Fandral (Josh Dallas), and Sif (Jaimie Alexander) killed in being massively outnumbered by blue hulks and pet beasties. Odin has to extract them hurriedly, and, furious at Thor, believing him a foolish warmonger, exiles him to Earth and disables his ability to use his walloping warhammer Mjolnir. Thor crash lands on Earth and is immediately almost run over by research scientist Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) and her paternal partner in geekery Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgård). Thor stumbles humorously through this world, in which he’s still strong and able and yet completely clueless and far from omnipotent. Jane and Erik, who were on the trail of a mysterious rupture of Einsteinian physics, actually the manifestation of the Asgard transportation wormhole, the Bifrost or “rainbow bridge”, when she ran into Thor, slowly begin to comprehend his otherworldly origins, as SHIELD turns up and confiscates their research material. 

Meanwhile, back on Asgard, the real source of the troubles besetting Odin’s realm is revealed: his other son, Loki (Tom Hiddleston), is conspiring to usurp the throne. He’s engaged in such villainy even before he discovers he’s actually a Frost Giant prince, saved from the battlefield and raised as Odin’s own. Rather than bring Asgard down, however, he plans the genocide of the Frost Giants to prove himself a worthy king and when Odin falls into a regenerative coma, Loki sets himself up as the new heir apparent, attempting to bully the other Asgardians into obedience, and sets up Laufey in a double-cross. Branagh makes a distinctive mark on the genre: his modern theatrical colour blindness and interest in multicultural cross-pollinating suggested in earlier works results in an appealingly heterogeneous version of Asgard. A touch of Arthurian myth is tossed in for flavour in the efforts of hicks and spooks alike to extract Thor’s hammer from the rock it gets lodged in, none worthy of the prize. There is a distinct similarity in Hiddleston’s performance as Loki to Adrian Lester’s in As You Like It (2006) in playing resentful black sheep, and it’s clear that Branagh feels confident with this stuff. He makes, after a fashion, Thor into his equivalent of King Lear, with Odin as Lear, Thor as a transgendered, beefcakey Cordelia, and Loki as Edmund and the other sisters rolled into one. Hopkins is in full emeritus mode, but effectively so, evoking the ferocity of the Aryan paternal figure always implicit in the mythology whilst also straining to encompass intelligence and affection for his wayward kin. Odin’s appearance on a rearing horse from a bolt of cosmic rays recalls Branagh’s own moment in the breach in Henry V.

The confluence of Branagh’s refreshed pictorial confidence and his touch with actors helps to keep Thor rocking along yet never descending into plasticity or pummelling raucousness: whilst staking turf in the same realm as Michael Bay, Branagh shows precisely how much he is not Michael Bay. The sweeping vistas of CGI that portray Asgard are suitably awesome, with retro-futurist castles and bastions balanced above seas contained by gravity fields in the midst of deep space, and the Bifrost is excellently depicted as a hyper-fluorescent stream of energy within a great glass catwalk. Branagh uses these environs to deliver a genuinely spectacular and well-visualised finale, when the boundaries of the acausal pocket about Asgard are broken and the protagonists literally hang on the edge of nothingness, the fragments of super-science and waters of myth each plunging into a cosmic maelstrom, and the peculiar nihilism of its villain taking on a sado-masochistic intensity in his twisted, incoherent ambitions. As As You Like It ably suggested, Branagh’s filmmaking is newly fluent and confident: the stunt-laden excessive camerawork and editing that marred his ‘90s work, as if he was so anxious to prove himself no theatre maven out of his element, are restrained as he emphasises character interaction. Yet there’s still a confident sense of movement and spectacle, blended with his vigour of rhythm and coherence of framing and staging. 

If the three or four action scenes that punctuate the body of the film seem a bit boilerplate, with the likeable team of Asgard heroes not getting much time to strut their stuff even when the film sets us up for that in the finale, it feels like an acceptable lack nonetheless, because Thor retains dramatic cohesion. Branagh manages to invest it with emotional immediacy. The pain of Loki, the confusion and regret of Thor, the anger of Odin, and the earthly emotions of Jane all make an impression, and give impact to the familiar but still enjoyable moments when Thor’s fellows come to his earthly aid, and his self-sacrifice results in his power being restored, perhaps the most rousing moment I’ve seen in a superhero flick since the resurgence at the end of Superman II (1981). Hemsworth, whose sole claim to fame prior to this was in playing Kirk’s ill-fated father in Star Trek (2009), is very good as our hero, moving from pumped-up blowhard to haphazard comic foil to newly contrite and wise warrior, with surprising dexterity. Portman, who knows her way around a blockbuster by now without always escaping them unscathed, gives another of her more relaxed and bodied recent performances, and there is a tangible frisson to her attraction to the totally ripped surfer dude from outer space. Especially enjoyable is Hemsworth’s interaction with Skarsgård, and the film has Renner and Kat Dennings and Rene Russo hovering in the background because, well, clearly it thinks it’s better to have them there than not have them there, and I agree. Idris Elba is formidable-looking as Heimdall, the guardian of the Bifrost, and interestingly he seems to best invoke something implacable and fearsomely warlike about the Norse gods. The result is not quite a fantasy masterpiece, but it has been distinctly underrated, being far from being the franchise dot-joiner it might have been, and brings a genuine flourish of the fantastic to increasingly mechanical and often top-heavy genre.


Dan O. said...

Part of what I wanted from the film was a guy in armor with a giant hammer smacking frost giants in the face...and so I got that. It was a good time at the theaters, and that's all I asked for. Good review.

Roderick Heath said...

And in the end, isn't it all we really want and need from any movie, to see some frost giants getting smacked in the face with a giant hammer?

Sam Juliano said...

I remember liking this well enough, and feeling good for Branagh, who I've always admired. Looks like we are on the same page exactly here after reading through this typically thorough and engaging piece--it uses CGI in a different way than the dreaded Michael Bay, it showcases a buffo finale, and is captivating in it's visual design, and in it's "flourish of the fantastic."

Roderick Heath said...

Same page indeed, Sam.