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Blood, fire and fate. These three elements swirl about the films of Robert Eggers, as he borrows from the old in order to create something that feels novel, surprising in its authenticity and driven by a perspective that could only stem from modern times, but a voice that feels distinctly outside of it.
Eggers’ latest film, The Northman, a Viking saga of revenge and love, is yet another example of that. It is, by the accounts of historical experts, the most accurate Viking story ever committed to screen. It’s also Eggers’ largest film, trading the mostly single settings of The Witch (2015) and The Lighthouse (2019) for an expansive epic set over multiple years and across multiple countries.
But most importantly, in terms of its context in our contemporary film space, The Northman, like Eggers’ previous two films, is a genre film, and those three aforementioned elements, blood, fire and fate, are inherent to the genre and what now stands as Eggers’ unofficial trilogy. This makes The Northman’s place in our current film and pop culture space — one dominated by genre films and what are essentially big-budget fairy tales and myths — intriguing, particularly when considering the film’s struggle to become a box office draw despite critical adoration.
On the surface, the story of Amleth’s (Alexander Skarsgard) quest to avenge his father, Aurvandil (Ethan Hawke); save his mother, Gudrun (Nicole Kidman); and kill his uncle Fjolnir (Claes Bang) is deceptively simple. At the same time, while being dubbed an original film, it is also a retelling of Hamlet, or a proto-telling considering Shakespeare was inspired by the legend of Amleth, so much so that he merely shifted the last letter to the front.
Not to suggest The Northman is a remake, rather than Eggers and co-writer Sjon are pulling from familiar texts in the way so many of our contemporary blockbusters are doing. For as much as there is being said about The Northman being an original film that left general audiences in the cold, it’s not a narrative that is all that original. That’s not to say the story being told isn’t excellent, but rather it’s Eggers’ style and approach to accuracy that’s original. Even through his distinct approach, The Northman is Eggers’ most approachable and crowd-pleasing film. (Still, the historical epic only made $24.9 million globally off an estimated $90 million budget.)
I’d argue, perhaps subconsciously born of a childhood love of the comics he eventually set aside, as noted in his profile to The New Yorker, Eggers made a film that should have been able to ride on the appeal of cinema’s Marvel era, rewarding audiences who have spent a decade at the altar of Chris Hemsworth’s Thor and others, with an enriching experience that speaks to our need for heroes and sagas. Even the film’s title, The Northman, suggests something superheroic, like The Batman, an effort to communicate the proto-ubermensch driving the film.
The classification of The Northman as a genre film is something that has been infrequently mentioned in discussions surrounding the movie leading up to its release. It has been dubbed everything from a historical drama to an art film by critics and audiences. There is a seeming hesitance to say The Northman is fantasy, be it because of a desire for the film to be taken most seriously, or to separate it from sword and sorcery films like Dragonslayer (1981) or The Beastmaster (1982).
Yet, The Northman is a film made up of witches, visions of the past and future, a mystical sword that thirsts for blood and can only be wielded at night, a Draugr, a Valkyrie and an absolutely metal climactic battle at the foot of an erupting volcano. It is so inherently fantasy that it could be placed on a shelf next to Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy (2001-03) and John Boorman’s Excalibur (1981).
I’ll go one step further and say The Northman is not so different from Star Wars in terms of its elements, themes and adherence to the structure of Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With a Thousand Faces. It’s worth considering how many more viewers the film would’ve attracted from the onset if that context was embraced. No, a film’s value is not determined by its box office, but The Northman is, at its very core, an R-rated version of the very genre films we’re clamoring for at the moment, and in its attention to ancient wood carvings and pictorial diagrams, the closest Eggers will probably ever come to making a comic book movie.
The reluctance to call The Northman what it is amidst discourse surrounding “theme park movies” feels like quite a similar predicament as the whole “elevated horror” conversation, or attempt to describe horror films by other terms, such as “social thriller,” “black comedy,” “psychological drama with elements of the supernatural.” It’s somewhat amusing to see filmmakers and audiences attempt to assert a film is outside of a genre that also comprises schlock.
Yet, the fantasy of Eggers’ films is the key to what makes them so appealing, and the filmmaker doesn’t shy away from that. The Witch is a story of becoming, ascension through assertiveness, and a soul’s struggle to choose (“Would thou like to live deliciously?”) amidst a larger game being played by God and the Devil. Likewise, The Lighthouse is a tale that draws various mythologies and belief systems, Norse and Greco-Roman mythology, and Christianity into a veritable clash of the titans with man caught in the middle of its millennia of conjured gods (“How long have we been on this rock?”). As horror, it was easier for those two films, particularly The Witch, to be embraced as genre. But The Northman has been placed in an odd position of having to justify itself as either an over-budgeted experiment or an audition for a franchise film entry, while being neither.
What’s interesting is that Eggers’ career as a filmmaker who is taking myths and folktales and literalizing them for audiences is happening at the same time as we’re seeing an onslaught of IP works, from Marvel and DC cinematic universes to Game of Thrones and The Witcher spinoffs. Surely, some would say that Eggers work is in opposition to that, fighting for its life against such other forms of entertainment. But what carries more weight for me is the notion Eggers’ films are companion pieces to these larger IP films, working in context with our stories of superheroes and Jedi. Really, Eggers and the projects that make up our most popular form of entertainment are pulling from the same sources, and to watch one of Eggers’ film is a reminder of where these popular elements came from and what they were built upon. We’re seeing the future of genre films and the Ur-text at the same moment, giving us a window into storytelling we’ve never had before.
Recently, there’s been a lot of discussion surrounding Eggers’ commitment to setting films in the past and what that means, with some arguing that the approach limits diversity and inclusivity within his films. Yet, it is Eggers’ ability to make the past accessible that makes him so crucial today and such a necessary voice existing alongside our contemporary American myths of caped heroes and laser-sword-wielding wizards. When asked about his decision to set all of his films in the past by Sam Knight for The New Yorker, Eggers quoted the poet John Dryden, “For mankind is ever the same and nothing is lost out of nature, though everything is altered.” I believe this speaks to so much of what Eggers has to say about us as a modern-day people, but also how we interact with his films and those that carry a more familiar studio logo or brand name.
There’s much to appreciate about our altered myths, the fantasies of Tatooine, Gotham City, Earth-616, and so on. But the fact that we can see our storytelling past, the tales that made us mythmakers and that they can be tapped into, not unlike the heart and vein constructed world-tree, Yggdrasil, that connects Amleth to his ancestors, is essential to our humanity and understanding what we value and why. The Northman isn’t diametrically opposed to our modern moviegoing and pop-cultural landscape, but an invitation to see these flights of fantasy in the realm of genre, not as studio-owned content, but as the inheritance of our shared storytelling history.
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