See It Instead: Thor -The Dark World Edition
Sometimes a movie comes along and makes you aware of an itch you never knew you had. Perhaps a review piqued your interest, or you’d rather stay in and pay yourself $10 for a small popcorn and watch a movie on the cheap. Perhaps you’re valiantly struggling through your queue on Netflix or Amazon Prime, and need a wise, cultured voice to direct you to where the real movie viewing gold is hiding amidst the shitty cannibal movies and serial killer biopics. Well, look no further. See It Instead is here to take today’s new releases and guide you to what you should really be watching.
Thor – The Dark World (2013)
Visiting the 9 realms this week is the thundering sequel to Marvel’s 2011 blockbuster Thor, Thor – The Dark World. Starring the titular Norse God-hero Thor, he attempts to prevent the titular apocalypse, the dark world, from coming about. Rarely has a title been so informative. Starring Chris Hemsworth, Natalie Portman, and Anthony Hopkins (among others), this film furthers the overarching saga being told via the Iron Man, Captain America, and Avenger series of films. Will audiences flock to the spectacle? If you’ve put money down based on my predictions, I certainly hope so. But in case you can’t be bothered to hammer out the price of a movie ticket, why not see these quality films instead?
The Serious Pick: The Vikings (1958)
A dark and serious tale of Norse power struggles featuring antagonist/ally half brothers.
This lesser known MGM Norse epic features the first pairing of Kirk Douglas and Tony Curtis, who would later re-unite in the excellent Roman classic Spartacus. England is a warring mess of petty kings, all of whom live in fear of the dread vikings that raid their coast. One particularly violent attack leaves the king of Northumbria slain and his wife with child after being raped by the viking chief. This movie doesn’t flinch from dark material.
In the power vacuum, the king’s cousin assumes the throne and begins to unite the lands through alliances and threats of violence. The queen hides her pregnancy and manages to send the child away to be reared before her death. In a twist of fate, the ship carrying the child is raided by vikings and the boy is taken as a slave in the camp of the very chief who raped his mother. 20 years pass as the English unite under the tyranny of the new king, who exiles any who oppose him. One such lord, Egbert, happens to have been appeasing the vikings with details of the English coast, and he flees to the vikings upon being accused by the king (rightly) of treason. There he recognizes the slave Erik (Tony Curtis) as the true heir to the Northumbrian throne by the necklace he wears, a gift from his mother, the queen. Unfortunately, Erik has just been sentenced to death for defying and attacking the chief’s arrogant and vain son, Einar (Kirk Douglas), causing Einar to be scarred and lose an eye. Egbert and the local priestess of Odin intervene, and Erik is spared his fate.
The rest of the movie details the slow twists of intrigue which maneuver Erik closer and closer to retaking his throne. Though the vikings are painted as cruel and monstrous at first, neither side comes off as particularly savory, and the script works well to paint a broader picture of both cultures, for good and ill. In the end, The Vikings is not a morality tale, but a historical epic, where alliances shift and men are not heroes or villains, merely humans taking and losing power, trying to get the best advantage they can in a dark and dangerous time. Curtis and Douglas are almost better here as antagonists than they are as loyal comrades in Spartacus. Well worth your time to see this tragic tale of violence set in the cold north.
The Lighthearted Pick: Erik the Viking (1989)
For those who prefer their mead to their axe, and just want a lighter version of Ragnarok.
Several Monty Python alums make appearances in this Terry Jones treat set in the fabled time of Ragnarok. The sun has been swallowed by Fenrir the wolf, and it falls upon a hapless viking named Erik (Tim Robbins) to retrieve the Horn of Resounding and urge the gods to forestall the end of the world. Erik is a poor viking, who dislikes the usual fare of murder and pillage, and he is beset on his quest by the trickster Loki and a local sword-seller who want Ragnarok to occur because it will help them sell more weapons. Also at his heels is a petty lord, played by John Cleese, who likes the status quo, since it keeps him in charge. The motley assortment weigh anchor and head out to find the enchanted land of Hy-Brasil and the horn. A comedy of errors ensues.
As a surprise to none who are acquainted with Monty Python’s sense of humor, everyone and everything comes off as silly and tawdry in this hilarious lampoon. The mortals are fools and simpletons, and the gods are peevish children engaging in petty politics for entertainment. The visuals are like-wise mad cap, with the viking ship being whisked to and fro by the Horn of Resounding, even being hurled off the edge of the flat earth into Asgard, and nearly into Hel! A faithful recreation of Norse mythology it is not, but I don’t remember dark elves being mentioned in my high school mythology class either. If all the clangor of Thor and his hammer sets you on edge, wind down with these foolish vikings instead.
The Unconventional Pick: Pathfinder (2007 and 1987)
For fans of action and tense battle in an ostensibly Norse setting.
Though some may be familiar with the Hollywood action epic, Pathfinder, starring Karl Urban and Clancy Brown, many may not realize that is a remake of an Oscar nominated Norwegian film of the same name. In both films, a young boy loses his tribe to a marauding force (Chudes in the original and Vikings in the remake) and must act as the Pathfinder for the enemy in order to save his life. The marauders use the youth to find the other settlements for pillage, but the boy is crafty and leads them on an arduous trek into the mountains, where he is able to wittle them down with traps and natural disasters. In the original, the boy is a native and literally a boy in age, while the remake has the orphaned youth be a viking himself, stranded amongst the natives and raised as their own into manhood (played by Karl Urban).
From this brief sketch, the Hollywood version varies greatly to allow a love story between the youth and the daughter of the local shaman (known as the Pathfinder) and to allow for a greater climactic battle between the hero and leader of the Viking raiders, played with characteristic malevolent gusto by Clancy Brown of Highlander fame.
The Norwegian film is superior in story and tension, yet the Hollywood version has Karl Urban fighting the Kurgan, so you can’t really fault it either. I would recommend both films, though the action fest of the 2007 film is by far easier to find, and may reward fans of Thor more easily, as it is quite decent, bloody-minded fun.