'Ragnarok': Film Review

Courtesy of Magnet Releasing
Not advisable for a family vacation

Wilderness exploration turns up more than expected in Mikkel Braenne Sandemose’s second feature

An action-adventure yarn wrapped around a monster-movie core, Ragnarok elevates familiar B-movie material with well-matched cultural specificity and realistic family dynamics. Magnet’s release strategy stands to capitalize on a crowded late-summer theatrical schedule by going day-and-date with digital formats, which are most likely to connect with the film’s natural audience.

Following brief scenes of a doomed Viking expedition, the film flashes forward to the present day, catching up with single father and absent-minded archeologist Sigurd Svendsen (Pal Sverre Hagen), who has some unusual theories about the famous Oseberg Viking ship, preserved at the museum where he conducts research. He’s convinced that cryptic runes and bestial decorative designs on the ship refer to the Norse legend of Ragnarok, the cataclysmic end of the world known as the “twilight of the gods,” but his boss and the museum’s funders find his theories unsupported and foolish. Forced to accept a drastic demotion to retain his job so he can support teenage daughter Ragnhild (Maria Annette Tandero Berglyd) and young son Brage (Julian Rasmussen Podolski), Sigurd plans to put his research on hold to spend the summer vacation reconnecting with his kids.

Then the arrival of his colleague Allan (Nicolai Cleve Broch) from far northeastern Norway with an ancient carved stone quickly reorders Sigurd’s priorities. Deciphering the runes depicted on the artifact, Sigurd concludes that the Oseberg ship was associated with a fateful expedition to a deep-water lake known as the “Eye of Odin.” He quickly packs up his research materials, heading off to the Finnmark region along the Russian border with Allan and the kids, where they meet research assistant Elisabeth (Sofia Helin) and begin an overland trek to the coordinates of the mysterious lake, led by sketchy local guide Leif (Bjorn Sundquist) in the hopes of uncovering even more momentous discoveries.

Their elation over locating a trove of Viking artifacts in a cave near the lake vanishes when Leif forces them to turn over the priceless items and abandons them in the wilderness without adequate supplies. Quickly they discover that they’re not alone, however, as indications of something far more ancient than anyone has yet imagined may be inhabiting the lake, posing an even greater threat to their survival.

Although screenwriter John Kare Raake’s Raiders of the Lost Ark template may sometimes seem a bit shopworn, at least it doesn’t dwell too indulgently on Viking mythology, playing to the strengths of the action scenario instead. Raake gives slightly obsessive Sigurd sufficient determination to pursue his quirky quest without allowing the narrative to become dominated by historical events. Burdening him with a couple of young kids adds family drama to the mix, which is a nice emotional counterweight to Sigurd’s scientific preoccupations.

Hardly a tomb-raiding hero, Hagen still achieves a persuasive balance of determination to solve the Oseberg ship mystery and concern for his kids’ welfare when the group’s expedition shifts into survival mode. Berglyd gives a winning turn as his young teenage daughter, suddenly faced with incalculable adult decisions, yet desperately missing her deceased mother and yearning for emotional connection with her often distant dad. However, the surrogate mom routine is unnecessary for Helin, who quickly raises the bar with her diverse survivalist skills, repeatedly extricating the entire group from life-threatening situations.

Sandemose has clearly assimilated countless '80s action-adventure movies, from blockbusters to Z-grade actioners and successfully distilled them into a specifically Norwegian paradigm. Although the characters’ investigative methods would make professional archeologists cringe, Sandemose and Raake don’t let the details hold back the film’s pacing, once they’ve slogged through a rather uneventful first act.

Pre-release publicity has already given audiences an idea of what to expect once the lake reveals its secrets, so the sparingly employed visual effects intensify the level of anticipation, until the rather pat denouement resolves matters much too neatly. Cinematographer Daniel Voldheim and Sandemose advantageously devote their widescreen lensing to capturing fantastic highland vistas, dense arctic forests and creepy underground settings with equal stylistic verve.

Opens: Aug. 15 (Magnet Releasing)  

Production company: Fantefilm

Cast: Pal Sverre Hagen, Nicolai Cleve Broch, Sofia Helin, Bjorn Sundquist, Maria Annette Tandero Berglyd, Julian Rasmussen Podolski, Terje Stromdahl

Director: Mikkel Braenne Sandemose

Screenwriter: John Kare Raake

Producers: Martin Sundland, Are Heidenstrøm

Director of photography: Daniel Voldheim

Production designer: Martin Gant

Costume designer: Marie Flyckt

Editor: Christian Siebenherz

Music: Magnus Beite

PG-13, 96 minutes