adventure, archaeologists, Bjørn Sundquist, CGI, children in peril, cinema, Daniel Voldheim, dragons, eggs, family films, fantasy, father-daughter relationships, film reviews, films, flashbacks, foreign films, John Kåre Raake, Julian Podolski, Jurassic Park, Magnus Beite, Maria Annette Tanderø Berglyd, Mikkel Brænne Sandemose, Movies, mythical creatures, Nicolai Cleve Broch, Norwegian films, Oseberg Vikings, Pål Sverre Hagen, Ragnarok, set in Norway, single father, Sofia Helin, Steven Spielberg, Terje Strømdahl, Vikings
For many folks of a particular age, the term “adventure film” will always be synonymous with one thing: Steven Spielberg. Throughout the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s, the auteur was directly responsible for some of the biggest, most iconic adventure films of those eras: Jaws (1975), Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), Indiana Jones & the Temple of Doom (1984), Indiana Jones and Last Crusade (1989), Hook (1991) and Jurassic Park (1993). This, of course, doesn’t include all of the iconic adventure films that he produced but didn’t direct during the same time-period: Poltergeist (1982), Gremlins (1984), The Goonies (1985), Back to the Future (1985), Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988) and Arachnophobia (1990), among many, many others. Regardless of how you, personally, feel about his films, there’s no denying that Spielberg has practically been a cottage industry for the past forty years…no mean feat, if you think about it.
Despite his massively impressive history with adventure films, however, we haven’t had a whole lot of Spielberg adventure movies since The Lost World (1997): there have been a few, such as Minority Report (2002) and War of the Worlds (2005) but, for the most part, Spielberg has turned his attention to “prestige” films like Amistad (1997), Saving Private Ryan (1998), Munich (2005) and Lincoln (2012) since the Aughts and doesn’t really show signs of stopping anytime soon. For people who miss Spielberg’s brand of high-octane, family friendly, effects-spectacles, there doesn’t really seem to be much that’s filled the void…until now, that is. If you’re looking for big, fantastic adventure, look no further than Norwegian director Mikkel Brænne Sandemose’s Ragnarok (2013), a big, colorful and exuberant adventure yarn that recalls films like André Øvredal’s Trollhunter (2010) in subject matter but more closely resembles Spielberg yarns like Jaws, The Goonies and, especially, Jurassic Park, in tone and execution.
After an extremely effective medieval-set opening that helps establish the film’s mythology, Ragnarok wastes no time in introducing us to our intrepid hero, single-father and Viking history expert Sigurd (Pål Sverre Hagen). Sigurd genuinely his two young kids, Ragnhild (Maria Annette Tanderø Berglyd) and Brage (Julian Podolski) but he’s far from the best father in the world: absent-minded and completely obsessed with finding some connection between the Oseberg Vikings and the mythical Ragnarok, Sigurd is the kind of father who remembers to pick his children up from school after they’ve been waiting for hours and plans family vacations based around archaeological digs.
After Sigurd’s partner, Allan (Nicolai Cleve Broch), shows up with a Viking runestone, Sigurd finally gets the confirmation he needs and the group has a new destination: the mysterious “Eye of Odin,” an island-within a lake-within a volcano that’s got to be one of the coolest locations for an adventure film, ever. Once there, sparks (the good kind) fly between Sigurd and Allan’s comely assistant, Elisabeth (Sofia Helin). There are also sparks flying between Sigurd and Allan’s guide, Leif (Bjørn Sundquist), although these are definitely the “wrong” kind: Leif thinks the whole expedition is beyond ridiculous and treats Sigurd like a dumb kid, which tends to make Sigurd kinda pissy. In other words: the circle of movie antagonism.
Once at the Eye of Odin, Sigurd and the others begin to unearth evidence that Sigurd was absolutely correct in his speculations: not only did the Oseberg Vikings land in Finnmark, as he postulated, but the group is able to find plenty of evidence of their passing, including preserved helmets and weapons…score! The group also finds evidence to support not only the one-time existence of the monstrous Ragnarok but its current well-being, as well. Faster than you can say “Jurassic Park,” Sigurd, his kids, Elisabeth, Allan and Leif are on the run from something that should only exist in fairytales, yet has somehow attained massive, terrifying life. It will take all of Sigurd’s skills, wits and extensive knowledge of Viking lore to survive the day but he’ll be damned if any of his family are going to become dragon snacks. Is the Ragnarok really as terrible as it seems, however, or is there more going on here than meets the eye?
Gorgeously shot, suitably thrilling and filled with lots of well-executed CGI and visual effects, Ragnarok is a decided throwback to Spielberg’s aforementioned adventure film glory days, yet never comes off as slavish imitation. The whole film definitely has the feel of a family film, with the vast majority of the film’s violence occurring off-screen. In fact, there’s nothing here that really pushes the PG-13 rating, save one brief shot of a corpse that directly recalls the similar jump-shock in Jaws (which, as we’ll all recall, was rated PG). In many ways, Ragnarok is sort of an update of Jurassic Park: absent-minded, absentee dad and precocious kids must survive an attack by giant reptiles while bonding and becoming closer to each other. Throw in a romantic angle, some double-crosses and betrayal (always to be expected), truly jaw-dropping locations and the parallels seem pretty obvious.
While Pål Sverre Hagen is dependable as Sigurd, Sofia Helin handily steals the film as the ever-resourceful, ass-kicking Elisabeth. Indeed, Elisabeth is pretty much single-handily responsible for saving the entire group on multiple occasions (including a thoroughly awesome setpiece involving crossing a chasm via rope) and Heflin is a mighty great action star: I can’t wait to see her in other films after this. Berglyd and Podolski are good as the kids, although neither one brings anything unique or revolutionary to the performances.
The real star of the show, however, aside from Heflin, is cinematographer Daniel Voldheim’s stunning camera-work. The various Norwegian locales never look anything less than beautiful and the cave sequences make excellent use of light and shadow to create some spectacularly atmospheric scenes. Also noteworthy is composer Magnus Beite’s highly effective score: it’s no patch on any of John Williams’ iconic scores but it is exciting, moving and just bombastic enough to effortlessly sell the big action beats.
Ultimately, I found myself quite taken with Ragnarok: there’s a genuinely old-fashioned quality to the film that I really enjoyed and I found it to favorably compare to some of my favorite adventure films from the past. Sandemose’s film may not be the most original film of the year but it’s got a helluva lot of heart and a genuine desire to thrill its audience. I’d like to think that ’80s Spielberg would have been a big fan, too.