Mikkel Brænne Sandemose’s sophomore feature-length movie follows on the tail of his bad luck debut of the entirely unnecessary slasher sequel, Cold Prey III. But his new adventure serial/creature feature, Ragnarok, is a not as much a giant step forward showcasing the director’s narrative capability and dazzling visual panache as it is a leap of mythological magnitude: It turns out Sandemose, having been given a second chance, demonstrates he could be the next in line for the Hollywood Big League potential of a Gareth Edwards or Neill Blomkamp.
Following the threat of his research grant being cut, archaeologist Sigurd Svendsen (Hagen) decides (perhaps a bit hastily) to kill two birds with one ancient stone of prophesy by bringing his morose tween daughter (Maria Annette Tanderød Berglyd) and precocious moppet son (Julian Rasmussen Podolski) along with him to Finland as he follows up independently searching for a lost Viking artifact cache after his buddy/colleague uncovers a crucial cipher. Fellow archaeologist/obvious mommy surrogate Elisabeth (Sofia Helin) and wilderness guide/obvious treacherous mercenary Leif (Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters’s Bjørn Sundquist) accompany them to spectacular caves nestled within breathtaking vistas of emerald mountains, and crisp woodlands so beautifully shot, one can practically smell the earthy perfume of decomposing leaves on the forest floor. Sandemose would be wise to foster a continued relationship with cinematographer Daniel Voldheim, a lenser whose work here could begin a stampede of tourism to these remote Scandinavian locations.
While a visual dynamo, everything else about the story will feel familiar, even to casual movie audiences. This is not necessarily to its detriment—it’s achieved with better-than-the-minimum required competencies. A winning lead performance by Hagen elevates the second act’s giddy search-and-discovery with an infectious enthusiasm, making it easy for one to share in the thrill of finding buried treasure. (Ya know, for science.)
So what, then, that when Ragnarok transitions into straight-up monster movie halfway into act three, the audience has known exactly who the walking serpent chow was an hour prior? And that the “family is the real treasure here!” parallel predictably unfolds right on schedule? It’s accomplished with a technical proficiency that still manages to shake out a few thrills. (This includes one particularly hair-raising scene involving the explorers scrambling across a makeshift zipline over an angry, dragon-filled lake.) At its best, Sandemose’s film recalls early Speilbergian wonder and terror, and although it comes nowhere close to hitting marks as high as that legendary director at his peak, it’s a noteworthy impression.
Hats off to Sandemose in his second stint behind the camera—after whiffing his way through a cash-in horror sequel, he stepped back up to the plate. Ragnarok ain’t a home run, but it’s a solid double, and certainly enough to cause Hollywood scouts to raise an eyebrow.
Director: Mikkel Brænne Sandemose
Writer: John Kåre Raake
Starring: Pål Sverre Hagen, Nicolai Cleve Broch, Sofia Helin, Bjørn Sundquist
Release Date: Aug. 15th, 2014 (limited; VOD)