Synopsis: Norwegian archaeologist Sigurd Svendsen forms a small team and sets off to find the true meaning of the secret runes found carved in rock and accidentally awakens a giant monster.
Stars: Pål Sverre Hagen, Nicolai Cleve Broch, Maria Annette Tanderø Berglyd, Julian Rasmussen Podolski, Sofia Helin, Bjørn Sundquist, Julian Podolski, Vera Rud
Director: Mikkel Brænne Sandemose
Running Length: 100 minutes
TMMM Score: (8.5/10)
Review: It’s probably safe to say that Thor will always be the most famous character to emerge from Norse mythology by Hollywood’s standards. Forever popular in the hearts of comic book fans, the deal was sealed when the superhero was brought to life by Chris Hemsworth in a series of standalone films and cameos and ensemble efforts in larger projects within the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Fortunately, the character has grown on me. It was 2017’s Thor: Ragnarok where the tides turned, thanks to a new visual language from director Taika Waititi, Cate Blanchett’s wicked villainess, and Hemsworth finally leaning into the sillier elements of the mighty-hammer-wielding crusader.
Norwegian myth is a deep well, and while Robert Eggers made a fantastic film out of the Viking saga The Northman this past year, it didn’t catch fire like its studio hoped it would. I’m truly surprised more hasn’t been made out of the epic tale of Ragnarök, a world-ending event that wiped out the gods and essentially hit the reset button. It has been a source of debate and studies over time, with archaeologists analyzing runestones to decipher these events and interpreting engravings to piece together a history that continues to be hotly debated.
That pursuit of the truth sets the stage for the 2013 feature Ragnarok. This Norwegian film uses this history to craft a fast-moving fantasy creature feature that remains one of my favorite discoveries of the past several years. The movie kept coming up in my recommended lists on several streaming services, but I continued to take a pass, fearing that it looked too hokey. Good reviews urged me to try it on a Sunday afternoon, and it was the best choice for a rainy-day watch. Feeling like the kind of film you’d have caught in 1988 at your local fourplex, Mikkel Brænne Sandemose’s movie has a near-perfect introduction and well-timed lead-up to a third act that really moves like the popcorn-chomping blockbusters nostalgia junkies crave.
Archaeologist Sigurd (Pål Sverre Hagen, Kon-Tiki) is your typical historian that puts preservation above all else. A cool scholar (because he has shaggy hair and doesn’t wear tweed) that isn’t above telling off stuffy donors that scoff at his theories, he finds himself returning to the work he began with his late wife studying Norse runes that could lead to a game-changing discovery. When news comes from a colleague (Nicolai Cleve Broch) that a lake in the upper North of Norway might hold the key to confirming his years of work, he packs up his two children, and they head off on a summer adventure.
Arriving in Finnmark (the northern region of Norway), they are joined by several more on their expedition and soon find themselves bypassing a fence that appears to warn them to stay out. Either those that built the old confines are keeping something inside they don’t want people to see or whatever is inside is…dangerous. As it turns out, the group of explorers only find a lake surrounding a small island that houses an abandoned barracks and a deep cave. They have no trouble getting in…but as they descend into the cave, the crew disturbs a creature that’s been minding its own business for some time. A creature that isn’t keen on guests arriving unannounced. Sigurd, his children, and crew must find a way off the island (over the water) to safety before an unpleasant and fast-moving beast cuts their summer vacation short.
There’s an old-school vibe running through Ragnarok from the start, with a prologue giving us a taste of what’s hiding out on the island and then keeping us in the dark for a good portion of the next 50 minutes. It’s not that the director or screenwriter John Kåre Raake (who would go on to write the tremendously successful Norwegian releases The Wave and The Quake) can’t show it to the audience; they don’t have to until they are good and ready. I appreciated that restraint because it’s satisfying and appropriate when it is finally revealed. With a PG-13 rating, this isn’t a gory mess of a film, but one focused more on building tension than the aftermath of its release.
The entire set-up of the explorer that is doubted by his colleagues and goes to great lengths to prove himself is familiar territory, but Sigurd (and Hagen) have the charisma to avoid getting insufferable. He’s not a neglectful father on his way to achieving his life’s study; he brings his kids along because he wants them to see the result of their mother’s hard work dedicated to Norse history. The kids aren’t corny, the villains (and double-crossers) are nicely smarmy, and the special effects are far above what you’d expect.
Ragnarok comes highly recommended for those hoping to travel off the beaten path in October and longing for a monster movie that won’t disappoint. You have to wait your turn to get an unveiling, but the wait is worth it. The nice thing is that until then, enough exciting ideas and characters are moving around in Ragnarok that you aren’t tapping your foot wondering where the creature in the feature is.