Saturday, May 7, 2011

From the Archive: "Thor" Film Review

Welcome to The Archive, a comprehensive collection of reviews dating back to 2007, originally written for The Denver Post’s YourHub.Com website and print edition!  In the archive, you’ll find hundreds of movie, DVD, Blu-Ray, and TV reviews, along with other special features.  You can access the complete Archive Collection by clicking here, and read about the archive project by clicking here.  

Continue reading after the jump to access my original review of “Thor.”

From the Jonathan R. Lack Review Archives:
Originally published May 7th, 2011

Ever since the project was announced in 2008, the cinematic realization of The Avengers has excited me.  It’s required Marvel to bring four of their greatest heroes – Iron Man, Captain America, the Hulk, and Thor – to the big screen, all so they can band together in the upcoming 2012 film.  Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk both blew me away, and as the culmination of Marvel’s machinations draws ever closer, I’ve only become more and more psyched for what will undoubtedly be a wholly unique experience. 

Kenneth Branagh’s Thor, on the other hand, starts the warning lights flashing.

Even without the added baggage of setting up his appearance in The Avengers, Thor is probably Marvel’s most difficult character to realize on screen.  His origin isn’t a simple matter of comic-book pseudo-science, like the Hulk, Iron Man, or Cap.  Thor is the literal God of Norse legend, and he comes from the mythical realm of Asgard; his mythology is certainly richer and grander than any other superhero, and devoting an entire movie to simply introducing the concept of Asgard, the nine realms, and Thor himself would be a monumental task.  With The Avengers fast approaching, however, Marvel doesn’t have time to flesh out Thor’s origin and mythology – instead, they have one film to prep this character for the big team-up, and that means the entire story is tailored to The Avengers, rather than to Thor himself.  It means that in addition to introducing audiences to Thor, his father Odin, brother Loki, and the many inhabitants and intricacies of Asgard, Branagh’s film must also bring Thor to Earth, give him human companions, and make his presence known to S.H.I.E.L.D., the organization that monitors superheroes on Earth.  To give Thor some enemies to fight, we’re also taken to a third realm, Jotunheim, to meet the dastardly and intimidating Frost Giants.  And this is all before one takes the numerous character arcs and relationships into account.

That’s just too damn much material to cover in one two-hour movie.  No film could successfully manipulate that much content into one coherent and compelling story, and it’s to the film’s credit that the whole affair doesn’t simply fall apart at the seams.  Thor gets many things right, and there’s so much worth loving on display that the film is easily worth the price of admission.  But make no mistake – Thor is an absolute mess of a movie, and what’s most disappointing is that if it weren’t for The Avengers looming over the head of the production, the film’s numerous positive aspects would certainly have a good chance at shining through.  A slightly different, less busy story could serve these characters and this mythology extraordinarily well, but as it stands, Thor is an underwhelming shadow of something that clearly could have been far greater.

The movie begins in Asgard, and though some of the very early exposition is clunky, this first act is clearly the best.  The special effects are truly jaw-dropping, bringing an endlessly inventive, intricate, and gorgeous vision of Asgard to life in spectacular fashion.  Every shot of the city captures the imagination, whether it be a sweeping pan through beautiful CGI vistas or a scene set in the immaculate practical interiors.  Watching Asgard on the big screen made me feel like a little kid again, in awe at how something as simple as a projection could transport me away to an entirely different dimension.  The creation of this new and exciting world is easily as effective as James Cameron’s vision of Pandora in Avatar or Peter Jackson’s realization of Middle Earth in The Lord of the Rings.  It’s absolutely unbelievable.

Yet Asgard would be entirely worthless if it didn’t have some interesting inhabitants, and it’s the characters that immediately suck the viewer into the action.  Anthony Hopkins lends the proceedings some major gravitas as Odin, while Idris Elba redefines awesome as the omnipotent and powerful Heimdall.  As soon as Chris Hemsworth appears as the titular Thor, however, he completely steals the show.  Hemsworth is absolutely the most impressive part of the film, delivering one of the most finely-tuned superhero performances ever.  I don’t know what it would be like to meet a Norse God, but if I ever came face-to-face with one, I imagine he would look, sound, and act like Chris Hemsworth – he is easily as confident and credible in the role as Robert Downey Jr. is as Iron Man.

What makes the first half-hour in Asgard so compelling, however, is that the story allows Hemsworth to take Thor in some unexpectedly dark directions.  This isn’t really an “origin story” – at the point where we meet Thor, he’s already a master of his powers ready to ascend to Odin’s throne.  For these reasons, Thor is arrogant, and Hemsworth isn’t afraid to make the character unlikable; indeed, Thor’s flaws are what make him compelling, and his rash-decisions force Odin to banish the Thunder God to Earth.

I knew, going into the movie, that this would be the plot – the trailers revealed as much, and it seemed to me like a natural direction for the story.  Once the moment of Thor’s banishment arrives, however, it’s far from a welcome twist.  The material in Asgard and Jotunheim is so imaginative and compelling and rich that taking a detour down to Earth inevitably feels underwhelming, especially when we’re only just beginning to get to know these characters.  By the time Thor is banished, he still feels rather distant and foreign, and his manipulative brother Loki is equally underdeveloped.  In truth, the opening material in Asgard feels like the sequel to a first film we never saw, a film where Thor, Loki, Odin, and the many finer details of Asgard were revealed to us in full.  Once Thor lands in the New Mexico desert, I longed to see that movie, not a story about this all-powerful being confined to our boring old realm without his powers.

Oh well.  The real problem is that Thor begins his journey on Earth as an underdeveloped character, and since the story only gets exponentially busier from this point on, the film doesn’t have time to make his story arc seem genuine or organic.  He’s found by an astrophysicist, Jane Foster, played by Natalie Portman, and naturally, the two find that they’re attracted to one another.  To be worthy of wielding his mighty hammer, Mjolnir, again, Thor must learn humility, and as one might expect, it’s his growing affection for humans – and Jane in particular – that teaches him this lesson.  It certainly sounds like a decent character arc, but the problem is that by the time the climax rolls around, Thor hasn’t really done anything to learn humility or humanity: the movie just says that he has to move things along.  He and Jane share a romantic conversation or two, and Thor beats up some government agents, but for the most part, Hemsworth becomes a guest star in his own movie for the second act. 

Loki’s machinations in Asgard, S.H.I.E.L.D.’s plans on Earth, and Jane’s two 100% useless sidekicks, played by Stellan Skarsgard and Kat Dennings, all have just as much if not more spotlight than Thor himself.  Some of this comes out of a need to set-up Thor’s presence in The Avengers, and some of it is just sloppy writing, but the net effect is that the film doesn’t have time to develop Thor and Jane as characters.  In essence, Thor learns to love humans because Natalie Portman is pretty and smiles at him, and while it’s certainly plausible that Portman’s beauty could entrance even the mightiest of Gods, it’s not enough to hinge the entire story on.  Thor is so arrogant and even cruel at the film’s outset that to believably find love for anyone but himself – let alone an entire species – he’d have to spend a lot more time having meaningful conversations with Jane and meeting humans that aren’t cold government operatives.  Hemsworth and Portman are fantastic in their respective parts, and by God do they do their best to sell the relationship, but no amount of good acting can overcome the script deficiencies.  The entire third act revolves around Thor’s personality transformation, but since the film mostly leapfrogs over the actual change of heart, the ending rings hollow. 

Thor isn’t the only one underdeveloped, mind you.  Jane is one-dimensional and her assistants broad caricatures.  Loki’s origin is actually fascinating, but the film doesn’t have time to flesh it out, and by the end, I was scratching my head trying to decipher the motivations behind his needlessly convoluted evil plan.  Agent Coulson, the other S.H.I.E.L.D. operatives, and Thor’s merry band of Asgardian warriors all get plenty of – perhaps too much – screen-time, but they still don’t manage to leave an impression.  The only character that feels sufficiently fleshed out is Heimdall, though he’s a fairly simple supporting figure to begin with.  Thor is overstuffed with far too many characters, none of them well-developed; they all distract from one another, squandering a truly impressive cast and dragging the equally overwrought story down along with them.

It doesn’t help that Kenneth Branagh’s direction is frustratingly erratic.  The cinematography is generally excellent, except when Branagh shows off his strange fetish for Dutch angles (tilting the camera at steep angles).  In the Asgard sequences, these angles look okay, albeit unnecessary, but once the action moves to Earth, they are completely out of place.  Yet for some reason, this is when they become most frequent – in fact, I’d say the number of Dutch angles found increases exponentially over time, culminating in a conversation between Coulson and Thor that is framed entirely with tilted cameras.  This technique looks ridiculous, it’s distracting, and it bogs down the movie even further.  Branagh does, at least, stage one awe-inspiring action sequence in the first act.  The climax, unfortunately, doesn’t have any impressive set-pieces – like Iron Man, the action peaks early and never comes close to recovering. 

Though this has been a largely negative review, Thor shouldn’t be immediately dismissed.  There really is a lot to love – the characters may be underdeveloped, but they are still interesting, and the performances are generally fantastic, especially from Hemsworth.  When the camera is flat, the visuals are spectacular; Asgard in particular will take one’s breath away.  The film is simply bursting with potential, and I suspect that if it didn’t have the dual task of introducing Thor and setting up The Avengers, Thor would be on par with Iron Man.  Alas, that’s not the case, and it’s enough to make me question whether or not The Avengers will be worth the trouble.  It’s a very cool idea, but not if other movies have to sacrifice creative integrity.  Certainly, if The Avengers doesn’t justify undermining a film with nearly limitless creative potential like Thor, then it will be one of the most massive disappointments of 21st century cinema. 

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