Can someone tell me why more filmmakers aren’t sifting through rich Nordic legends for creature feature ideas? André Øvredal struck gold with Trollhunter, and when analyzing the seafaring culture, so many untouched stories about vikings, monsters, and cinematically inviting dark fairytales still remain only on parchment. Why aren’t more people paying attention to Nordic cinema with movies like Trollhunter and, more recently, Ragnarok being produced? The latter isn’t necessarily the game-changer Trollhunter is, yet it’s still a wildly whimsical tale of terror and adventure, a bit of a thrilling exploration that feels fresh – even though normalcy becomes king. Director Mikkel Brænne Sandemose and writer John Kåre Raake meld family dynamics with a legendary predator for a truly unique viewing experience, but once the allure of a foreign lake-dwelling serpent wears off, typical monster movie generics are all that remain – but at least cinematic competencies are strong enough to guide viewers to safety!
Following archeologist Sigurd Svendsen (Pål Sverre Hagen) on his quest to prove that Nordic myths are in fact true, an ancient rune brings him and an accompanying party far off the beaten path where viking remains possibly lay. Joined by his children, an enthusiastic partner, and a two helping guides, Sigurd excitedly hopes to prove his theories about the existence of fabled viking tales, including the word “Ragnarok” – a term essentially possessing an apocalyptic undertone. After discovering a few helmets and nick-knacks confirming vikings indeed inhabited that exact location at some point, bones are discovered, and then an uninvited guest makes its presence known. Well, technically Sigurd is the uninvited guest, who never could have comprehended the home he just invaded…
Ragnarok plays to audiences of all ages, so hardcore horror fans shouldn’t expect a vicious killer animal munching on archeologist limbs with a blood-covered mouth, as most of the gory action happens safely off screen as not to scar the younger characters/audience members. Sandemose’s film exists more as a rip-roaring adventure, calling to Spielbergian classics that know how to set a lush scene heightened by bigger-than-imaginable atmospheres and wild chases filled with tension – emphasizing the hunt over the kill itself. Don’t be thrown off, there’s a dark bite – made obvious by the toothy mouth pictured above – but also comfort in the sweeter antics of a father trying to keep his children safe while also fighting a gigantic scaly brute. One can only see so many massive human buffets before wanting something more from a creature feature, and Ragnarok does strike a satisfying balance between vicious ferocity and more family-friendly material.
Holding back pure exuberance is an air of familiarity that takes the beaten path to success, as Raake borrows heavily from numerous creature features of old, especially the lesser-respected dinosaur caper Jurassic Park III. You never mess with a mama and her babies, which is something the greedier characters learn the hard way – making the same mistake of Alessandro Nivola’s sidekick character Billy Brennan (JP III). Mix that with an obvious backstabber in the group, and Sigurd’s problems all stem from recognizable roots deeply planted in genre norms that don’t explore enough Norwegian originality to separate themselves from the pack. Ragnarok is one gigantic case of slithering baby-mama drama that parallel’s Sigurd’s own paternal instincts, and there’s a missing sense of dread that never quite lets the whole “snarling creature” aspect play out with enough fearsome fang-flashing.
Sandemose doesn’t necessarily need anything reinvented to make a successful ENOUGH movie though, and while there’s not enough exploration to create the next midnight movie classic, Ragnarok gets by just fine with the blueprints given. In fact, it does more than just squeak by, setting up a few rather dashing scenes of adrenaline-pumping suspense, specifically thinking of a particularly dangerous zip-line ride over the dark, murky lake water concealing what behemoth sea creature lurks beneath. These gripping flashes of more vibrant horror/adventure mashings exude a life that begs for a more profound script, but what Sandemose still manages to accomplish with this toned-down serpent whips up enough frenzied action to permit a soundly dark fairytale.
One shouldn’t snub lead actor Pål Sverre Hagen or either child, played by Maria Annette Tanderød Berglyd and Julian Podolski, as Sigurd’s parental instincts lessen the blow of off-screen deaths and other missing horror aspects that viewers may begrudgingly accept. Again, there’s a noticeable balance between Sigurd and his pursuer, both fighting to protect those they love the most, and instead of becoming a lame emotional ploy without intrigue, there’s actually a wonderful bond created with a man and his family – but also a man and nature. Hagen makes his character work, and makes us believe in his willingness to sacrifice everything when his children are in danger, and once again, we can point to powerful execution as the driving force of Ragnarok.
Had more liberties been taken, I could see Ragnarok in the 4/4.5 star range, but without a real surge of creative juices elevating this signature monster movie, Sandemose’s feature just misses out on being a “MUST WATCH NOW” release – but there’s still plenty of chaos to safely enjoy. Delivering on suggested promises of a larger than life CGI monster (that looks awful damn flashy), viking legends, and an almost swashbuckling adventure, Sandemose makes sure that if you’re getting what you paid for, it’s at least going to be a damn good show. Ragnarok is a lesson in competency, full of age-appropriate excitement everyone can enjoy – and they should.
While Ragnarok may lack a gruesome bite, there's a tense, thrilling, throwback adventure here akin to a second-tier Indiana Jones - with a monstrous, Nordic twist.