Fantastic Fest Review: Ragnarok


Ragnarok posterIn 1904, Norwegian archaeologist Haakon Shetelig and Swedish archaeologist Gabriel Gustafson excavated one of the greatest discoveries of the Viking Age -- a burial mound located on the Oseberg farm near Tornberg, Norway, containing a well-preserved ship, grave goods and the skeletal remains of two women. The quality and abundance of items within the grave indicate that at least one of the interred was a woman of high status, and it has been suggested that she was the legendary Norwegian Queen Asa.

Norwegian director Mikkel Brænne Sandemose couples this archaeological find with the Norse myth of the end of the world's events in his action/adventure Ragnarok, which premiered at Fantastic Fest. This family-friendly film pays homage to blockbusters such as Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Goonies without the overdone Hollywood gloss. Don't get me wrong -- the movie includes plenty of long shots of sweeping landscapes with a majestic musical score to match, and CGI special effects reminiscent of the most memorable "cat-and-mouse" chase scenes of Jurassic Park. These assets make up the lovely packaging containing the true gift of writer John Kare Raake, an engaging and thrilling story of loss, intrigue, and family bonds that stretch over one thousand years.

Pål Sverre Hagen (Kon-Tiki, Troubled Water) portrays archaeologist Sigurd Svendsen, a widower whose obsession with solving the secrets of the Oseberg ship leaves him ignorant of his children's need for attention. His theory that Vikings had actually traveled further north than popular conception -- to the heavily wooded and unpopulated Finmark, the northernmost region of Norway referred to the "no man's land" that lies between Russia and Norway -- is not well-received by the museum patrons who've funded his research, and he is demoted from his position.

Sigurd's colleague Allan (Nicolai Cleve Broch) returns from an extended field expedition with a rune stone that has apparent ties to the Oseberg ship, as well as runes that translate into the phrase, "Man knows little." Is this phrase an observation, or is it a message from the past? Sigurd is determined to find out, and so with Allan and Allan's field assistant Elisabeth (Sofia Helin), he sets off on an expedition with his reluctant children Ragnhild (Marie Annette Tanderod Berglyd) and Brage (Julian Podolski) in tow.

Ragnarok opens with a flashback that reveals to the audience that there may be more than relics from the Viking Age as well as from the Cold War era lurking in the caves and waters around the Eye of Odin, an island in a lake nestled in a valley in Finmark. This flashback plays an even more crucial role by connecting the relationship of Asa and her father to that of Ragnhild and Sigurd.

The cinematography and production design of Ragnarok is phenomenal, which prompted questions during the Q&A about which relics were real and which were props. The use of the Viking Ship Museum in Oslo, Norway, and actual artifacts lend to the authenticity.

This realism also comes across in the directing and characterization of the cast. Hagen is excellent as both a grieving father and determined scholar, and Helin as a woman with no desire to have ties and settle down. Without revealing a spoiler, Broch should be recognized for his effectiveness in a role with motivations that aren't quite known at first, but drive much of the story and action as well. Child actors Berglyd and Podolski were also quite believable in their supporting roles, with the most touching moments involving dialogue between Sigurd and Ragnhild.

Ragnarok breathes life into history as well as the often overdone family action/adventure theme. I highly recommend catching this film on the big screen if the chance should arrive -- here's hoping it will receive theatrical distribution in the United States soon. Watch the English subtitled trailer below: