The new Norwegian film Ragnarok wants very badly to be a modern-day Indiana Jones story, but ends up feeling slightly more enjoyable than the SyFy Movie of the Week. (“Better than Sharknado 2!” may not be a desirable pull-quote, but there you are.) Its heroic lead is a rakishly handsome guy who works as an archeologist and literally tells someone else that a priceless artifact they’ve just found belongs in a museum. Unfortunately, while this movie has its heart and spirit in the right place, the execution is somewhat middling. Ragnarok is at its best when presenting helicopter shots of the beautiful vistas of Norway, the forests and lakes and everything in between. The handful of characters–there are only 12 speaking roles, two of which only appear in the ominous prologue–who walk through those vistas, however, are aggressively, blandly familiar.
Sigurd Svendsen (Pål Sverre Hagen) is dedicated to preserving all sorts of Norwegian history, but his true passion is in discovering the truth of the infamous Ragnarok myth. Most of us (the John Hodgmans of the world) may think that Ragnarok is the bringer of the apocalypse, but Sigurd believes it portends something more tangibly fearsome. He, along with his two kids (Nicolai Cleve Broch and Sofia Helin) and a fellow believer, make a trek during the summer months to hopefully unearth the truth after being laughed out of so many rooms by his fierce belief about Ragnarok. Unsurprisingly, he’s soon proven right; Ragnarok is something nasty, but it’s not quite so apocalyptic as we might think.
So much of Ragnarok has its roots in films like Raiders of the Lost Ark and even E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial. The problem, more in the script than in Mikkel Braenne Sandemose’s direction, is that this movie is surprisingly self-serious, rarely allowing any levity in spite of the general adventure not being so dire and intense as the Ragnarok myth might lead you to believe. What lies beneath a serene lake in the middle of a deserted forest isn’t something you want to trifle with, but its existence isn’t so terrifying that the characters couldn’t crack a joke once or twice. Worse still, when a bit of lightness is introduced–as with Sigurd’s son attempting to encourage his dad to start dating after so many years mourning his dead wife–it falls flat. The kind of wry humor that marked the Indiana Jones films (at least the first three) is completely absent from Ragnarok, making its homage all the more painful.
Hagen and the rest of the cast–even Broch as Sigurd’s son; his dialogue is the real issue–are decent enough, but all of them are hampered by the dour tone of the film. The other thing that truly holds Ragnarok back appears to be its budget. There is value, of course, in waiting as long as possible to reveal the monster in your movie; Spielberg did it to immensely successful effect in both Jaws and Jurassic Park, the former a case where a practical effect kept failing so much that he simply had no choice but to hide the shark for a while. Somehow, though, Ragnarok doesn’t feel like it’s aping Jaws by showing its creature as little as possible. Instead, it feels like the movie’s budget was so low that the filmmakers only had a few seconds, maybe a minute, of screen time devoted to the creature. At a certain point, the decision to obscure the creature is less novel and more thrifty.
The concept of Ragnarok is a solid one, and the movie itself feels like a relic of the period in the 1990s when low-budget family adventures were easier to find at the multiplex. Even though this is a foreign film, it feels so indebted to the structure of modern American filmmaking, to the point of detriment. We have, unfortunately, seen this movie before, and done better. There’s nothing wrong with a good, old-fashioned adventure yarn and one with roots in mythology. There’s nothing wrong with a family-style adventure, either. Ragnarok wants to be both, and yet it’s not confident enough of itself to break free from its inspirations.