Thor (3D)
A Film Review

South Africa By: Mandy J Watson on 29 April 2011
Category: Screen > Film > Reviews Comments View Comments


Thor, another comic-book star, makes his debut on the silver screen as part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe in director Kenneth Branagh's special-effects-laden blockbuster, which stars Natalie Portman and Anthony Hopkins.

ThorIn a scene near the beginning of the movie the context of the story is set up for those not familiar with the Marvel comic series. It's 970 AD and the Frost Giants, led by Laufey (Colm Feore), have arrived on Earth, one of the Nine Realms, to conquer it, freezing panicking humans in their paths and providing the foundation for the Norse mythologies that then follow. The warriors of Asgard, led by their king Odin (Anthony Hopkins), appear to stop the slaughter, eventually defeating the giants after a long war and securing the source of their power, the Casket of Ancient Winters, which is placed in the Asgard weapons vault.

At one point during this history lesson the camera flies dramatically over the computer-generated ranks of Frost Giants who are facing off against the computer-generated ranks of Asgard warriors during one of the more epic battles of the war, then the two sides clash and we get the (mercifully short) largely computer-generated close-up gratuitous battle scenes.

It was here that my first feelings of unease began to develop.


Thor (Chris Hemsworth) begins this story as a petulant, arrogant, and reckless future king whose actions lead him to being banished to Earth along with his hammer, Mjolnir, which is the source of his power and which he is deemed no longer to be worthy of wielding. His childish behaviour throughout the first part of the movie is very grating, though I later realised it was a mechanism of the storyline in order to give the protagonist a growth path to follow in which he must "redeem" himself in order to earn both the title of "hero" and the respect of the other characters in the story.

The clichés don't end there, unfortunately. You don't need to know the story to tell, from the beginning, that Thor's brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) is the antagonist - it's in everything, from the physical look of the character to the camera movements, the actors' postures and physical presences, and the editing. When it is actually revealed, quite early on, it is hardly a surprise but this means that the audience doesn't form any sort of emotional attachment to him, though there are early scenes in which the film tries to do this.

ThorOn Earth, Thor is found by a physicist, Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), and her mentor Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgård) and intern/assistant Darcy Lewis (Kat Dennings, who does a remarkably endearing job with few lines of dialogue and a largely background screen presence), who are out in the New Mexico desert investigating strange weather phenomena and researching wormholes and other unspecified advanced scientific somethings. The law-enforcement agency Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division, or SHIELD, meanwhile, appropriates the site where Mjolnir has landed and builds a compound around it to study it as it cannot be wielded by anyone not worthy to do so and remains permanently buried in a rock. The SHIELD group is led by agent Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg), who fans of the Marvel Cinematic Universe will recognise from the Iron Man movies, and I was glad to see his role greatly expanded.

Typical comic-book-adaptation fare ensues, the specific storyline being that the trouble brewing in Asgard requires the talents and bravery of the banished Thor in order to be overcome and peace to be restored to the Nine Realms. He's been betrayed, he needs to get back home, his friends arrive to try and assist him, half the humans get in the way while the other half help, and he experiences some personal growth in the process. This is the usual hero cycle that we've been seeing in films, books, and comics for decades (centuries, in some cases) and it's lazy writing.

Visually, a lot of effort and thought went into this production, though there are failures in terms of technical ability. We are provided with many magnificent, sweeping views of Asgard, which bears more than a passing resemblance to Coruscant. The design is beautiful but it really is an impressive piece of computer-generated art, not a functional city. Everything is pristine. The architecture is mighty, and there are imposing statues, but there's no artworks, no ephemera, no feeling of being lived in by the inhabitants. During the extreme long shots at night, which are designed to allow the audience to take in the wonders of the rainbow Bifröst bridge, the failings of the film's CG designers are quite noticeable - you can see that the entire world was built inside a sphere and a texture of stars and galaxies was wrapped around the inside of this sphere (think of Jim Carrey in the boat hitting the edge of the film-set sphere in The Truman Show if you can't visualise this). Moments such as these repeatedly threw me out of the story as I just couldn't get past the fact that I was actually looking at a wrapped texture in a big-budget Hollywood movie. It's possible that the 3D presentation of this version of the film accentuated this as the virtual camera moved across the space and it would be less noticeable in a 2D presentation, but this is something the filmmakers should know, and work around.


Fortunately it's not all bad - the rendering of Jotunheim, the Realm of the Frost Giants, is beautiful, with jagged, ice-covered peaks in a world of swirling snow (possibly obscuring the sphere in which that environment was probably built), and the Destroyer, which is a huge, semi-sentient suit of armour that shoots a beam of energy from its helmet, looks absolutely real when placed in environments with human actors.

The costume design is very good and is especially respectful of the female characters (and actors). (In fact, the only gratuitous scene is of a topless Chris Hemsworth soon after Thor lands on Earth but the moment is partly used to set up Jane's burgeoning romantic interest.) There's a good contrast between the opulence of Asgard and the simplicity of a practical life on Earth (though this heightens the problems I highlighted with the computer-generated world of Asgard.) The designers also dealt with capes very well and they hang royally and naturally off the armor of the characters that wear them.

ThorThere is also no bad acting in this movie, though that's not to say that the characters are particularly strong representations. It's a good cast with an actor's director in Kenneth Branagh but many of the actors are given very little to work with or do besides look pretty on screen. Nevertheless they manage to own their spaces as best as they can and come across as human (where applicable) but there's not much for them to use to help us to connect with them emotionally. Even the leads, who are both personally quite charismatic, don't really have any chemistry that leads us into wanting them to be, or believing they should be, together, so the romantic buildup falls flat.

What's especially disappointing about this is that Natalie Portman has commented on Jane Foster, as a physicist, being a role model for girls and an antithesis to "'cute' stereotypes". (And, to be fair, the character is very much expanded from the stereotyped supporting character that debuted in the comics in 1962.) However, once Thor shows up on Earth, most of her physicisting is shoved aside in favour of enamoured glances at, and interactions with, the man - understandably, I guess, as he is hot - but it's to the detriment of the portrayal of a strong role model.

Rounding out the cast are Ray Stevenson as Volstagg, Tadanobu Asano as Hogun, and Joshua Dallas as Fandral, collectively known as the Warriors Three who, along with Sif (Jaimie Alexander), are Thor's closest friends. They're all completely wasted in the film, bar to act as comic foils in setups that fall flat because the jokes aren't written properly. I must also give a nod to Rene Russo as Odin's wife Frigga, the queen of Asgard, who looks beautiful and regal but has almost nothing to do, and Idris Elba as Heimdall, the guardian of the Bifröst bridge who has a gift that allows him to see (almost) everything that happens in the Nine Realms. His role is incredibly important in the story but, again, I feel he could have been utilised more.

The story is credited to J Michael Straczynski (and Mark Protosevich). Straczynski gave us the very intricate world of Babylon 5 in the 1990s and wrote the Thor comics for Marvel from 2007 to 2009, so I presume that's where the story credit comes from, though I am not sure. The screenplay was written by Ashley Edward Miller and Zack Stentz of Andromeda, Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, and Fringe fame, along with Don Payne (whose film screen-writing credits are a little iffy), so I'm surprised that the story is filled with so many clichés and that the movie is so formulaic with such accomplished science-fiction storytellers behind it.

Finally, the score, by Patrick Doyle, is suitably epic action/superhero fare, but I must confess that for the most part I barely noticed it. It blended into the formulaic presentation along with everything else, contributing to the overall product but doing very little to stand out and make an impact. The 3D version of this film is also not particularly noteworthy. I nearly forgot to mention it in this review because nothing stood out so it fades into being irrelevant. It wasn't done badly but it didn't contribute anything meaningful to the presentation.


I must end off with a note about Thor's helmet. The fanboys complained and I thought it was a bit nitpicky at the time but now I think otherwise. He wears it very briefly in the beginning of the movie, and then you never see it again. That makes perfect sense when he's drifting around purposelessly on Earth and isn't in his Asgard armour but the rest of the time (which is very little of the movie) he should have it on, or at least on hand. It's iconic to his character, physical presence, and style.

While this isn't a bad movie - in fact, in terms of superhero movies this is probably one of the better ones that has been made in recent years - given the talent both in front of and behind the camera, I still walked away incredibly disappointed.

Thor is on circuit in South Africa now and opens in the US on 6 May 2011. Opinion
Rating: 7/10
In One Word: Formulaic

Key Facts: Thor (3D)
Year: 2011
Running Time: 114 minutes
Genre: Action, Adventure, Fantasy, Science Fiction
Format: Feature; Widescreen 1:2.35; Colour
Language: English
Country: USA
Director: Kenneth Branagh
Chris Hemsworth ... Thor
Natalie Portman ... Jane Foster
Tom Hiddleston ... Loki
Anthony Hopkins ... Odin
Stellan Skarsgård ... Erik Selvig
Kat Dennings ... Darcy Lewis
Clark Gregg ... Agent Coulson
Idris Elba ... Heimdall
Colm Feore ... King Laufey
Ray Stevenson ... Volstagg
Tadanobu Asano ... Hogun
Josh Dallas ... Fandral
Jaimie Alexander ... Sif
Rene Russo ... Frigga
Ashley Edward Miller (screenplay)
Zack Stentz (screenplay)
Don Payne (screenplay)
J Michael Straczynski (story)
Mark Protosevich (story)
Stan Lee (comic book)
Larry Lieber (comic book)
Jack Kirby (comic book)
Victoria Alonso ... co-producer
Mike Bodkin ... stereoscopic executive producer
Louis D'Esposito ... executive producer
Kevin Feige ... producer
Debra James ... associate producer
Craig Kyle ... co-producer
Stan Lee ... executive producer
David Maisel ... executive producer
Patricia Whitcher ... executive producer
Original Music: Patrick Doyle
Cinematography: Haris Zambarloukos ... director of photography
Film Editing: Paul Rubell
Production Design: Bo Welch
Set Decoration: Lauri Gaffin
Costume Design: Alexandra Byrne

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