**/**** Image A Sound A+ Extras B+
starring Chris Hemsworth, Natalie Portman, Tom Hiddleston, Anthony Hopkins
screenplay by Ashley Edward Miller & Zack Stentz and Don Payne
directed by Kenneth Branagh
by Walter Chaw An uneasy collision of the Henry V Kenneth Branagh and the Peter's Friends Kenneth Branagh, Branagh's foray into the long-form Avengers trailer sweepstakes Thor features a star-making turn from handsome Aussie soap actor Chris Hemsworth (whose star was actually made as James T. Kirk's dad in the Star Trek reboot), a lot of debt to the kitsch elements of Superman II, and another waste-of-life post-credits teaser starring everyone's favourite one-eyed motherfucker. It has the titular Norse God of Thunder deposited fish-out-of-water-style in bumfuck New Mexico (better than Arizona, I guess, where he'd be asked for his papers, denied an education, then probably shot), where he falls under the care of mousy (?) physicist Jane (Natalie Portman), her mentor Selvig (Stellan Skarsgård), and wacky alterna-intern Darcy (Kat Dennings). He's been banished, see, by daddy Odin (Anthony Hopkins); betrayed by tricky brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston); and separated from his beloved hammer until such time as he can prove himself a true Asgardian. Gibberish? You bet. Leave it at this: the movie's pretty decent in a Starman sort of way when Thor's tossing down coffee mugs at a local greasy spoon and demanding more drink and pretty horrible when it's depicting the war between the Norse and the Frost Giants on a massive CGI stage that triggers Tron: Legacy flashbacks like wet heat does Vietnam.
Thor plays exactly like the first act of a much longer, much better-developed piece it probably is, despite Branagh's efforts to infuse some weight in the Shakespearian interplay of Asgard's royal family. It's clear that he prefers the more mundane bits--a shame, then, that the film's so underwritten that the extended time we spend waiting for something to happen bears no character fruit. The bits on Earth ape screwball comedy, with Portman's Jane much like the Jane in a Tarzan flick as her hulking beau eats multiple stacks of pancakes, talks like a doof, and makes everyone a little hot when he takes off his shirt. It's a jumble, in other words, a terrible mess of a film that manages to not be a disaster because Hemsworth's extremely charismatic and imminently sincere. He's the spoonful of sugar that makes this formula go down. His character tasked with saving the universe, Hemsworth saves the film instead--enough so that huge, gaping, unanswered questions, like the fate of an entire race of beings nearly eradicated as a means of giving Thor some depth at the end, are acceptable grist fed to the agreement that hard questions are best left unasked. Why do the nefarious men-in-black S.H.I.E.L.D. agents neither quarantine our spaceman nor keep him detained once apprehended? What happens to all the highfalutin' black ops shenanigans after a Norse Gort starts ripping up the nondescript backwater?
Never mind. Thor is really about Branagh interpreting the comic as a kindred spirit to high 17th-century melodrama. It's a joke, maybe a commentary, definitely not to be taken too seriously as we see crazy Darcy loading up her taser for another Norse God-disabling round in the background when Jane declares that she's going to try to break her beefstick out of solitary. The action sequences are edited into incoherence by Paul Rubell, who, though he has a good time with crosscuts between prone figures and ponytails, falls into the trap of shit he learned at the Michael Bay school (Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen) rather than the school of Michael Mann (Collateral, Miami Vice). Entire stretches of the film consist of digital phantoms flailing at each other on digital battlegrounds to no apparent end, and scholars of Norse mythology, naturally, should probably just stay home, leaving, after all the bytes have settled, the kind of flat aftertaste you get from licking foil. It's the introduction to Hemsworth that The Road Warrior was for Mel Gibson, The Quick and the Dead was for Russell Crowe, and X-Men was for Hugh Jackman--pulp Hollywood being Ellis Island for the lads from Down Under. As a kick-off to the summer-movie season, there's the consolation that it could have been a lot worse, but given the talent assembled for it, it should be a lot better. Originally published: May 7, 2011.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
by Bill Chambers Paramount brings Thor to Blu-ray in a handsome 2.35:1, 1080p transfer with spectacular 7.1 DTS-HD lossless audio. Seriously: when the Destroyer starts zapping New Mexicans like a pissed-off Gort, you'll be applauding the carnage--total ear candy. (Behold the paradox of violence in the cinema.) The image has a trivial softness that might be an artifact of the anamorphic cinematography or the result of a slight defocusing to better reconcile non-effects sequences with the composite-heavy CGI. Dynamic range is excellent, with blacks dipping down into the danger zone but never becoming thick, digital soup; colours are sharp and depth astounds in the rendering of textures, from the polished surfaces of Asgard to the craggy flesh of the Frost Giants. But it's finally the sound--deep, dynamic, crystal-clear--that's going to make me reach for Thor the next time I want to show off my home theatre.
Kenneth Branagh maintains his professional distance in a feature-length yak-track that almost seems like it's coming not from the director but from a professor conducting a lecture on the film in mythology class. Occasionally he'll touch on the production from personal experience, and he's an engaging speaker, but I missed the alternately wistful and passionate fellow from the Dead Again and Hamlet yakkers. Maybe there's a reason he's not doing Thor 2. Branagh comes across as a little more contemplative in his optional commentary over a 24-minute block of HiDef "Deleted Scenes" (11 in total, three of which are actually scene extensions), though he curiously sits out the best of them, in which Thor returns to the coffee shop to replace the mug he broke the day before. Most of these elisions were made in the interest of pacing; not surprisingly, Rene Russo had a lot more to play originally, including a marital spat that's ridiculous in some intangible way (maybe it's the notion of former Freejack co-stars Russo and Anthony Hopkins arguing on the set of "Solid Gold"), although Branagh likes it well enough.
Also on board are seven featurettes of varying but basically decreasing length, each presented in HD with DD 5.1 audio. The first and longest is "From Asgard to Earth" (20 mins.), which surveys the challenges of production designer Bo Welch (the Men in Black movies). Welch says that with his work here he has "one foot in Jack Kirby, one foot in Norse mythology, and one foot in Zen architecture," meaning he's a tripod from the waist down. He also points out something I hadn't noticed but now appreciate, i.e., the sly echoes of Asgardian architecture in the Earth sets. "Our Fearless Leader" (3 mins.) is a love letter to Branagh, whom the great Kat Dennings calls the "most inspiring person I've ever met," adding, "He's another one I creepily watch." Oh for membership to that club.
"Assembling the Troupe" (5 mins.) is a companion mash note to the cast. Of star Chris Hemsworth, Branagh says, "We had to push him to slice the ham sometimes," endearing both men to me in one fell swoop. "Hammer Time" (6 mins.) focuses on the unpronounceable Mjolnir. Surprise, surprise, interchangeable hammerheads of differing weights were used to spare Hemsworth as much arm fatigue as possible. "Creating Laufey" (6 mins.) suggests that Branagh was heavily involved in the design of the Frost Giants (he was desperate to avoid anything "Christmassy"), perhaps because he'd cast kindred spirit Colm Feore as their leader. "Music of the Gods" (2 mins.) is a too-brief segment on Patrick Doyle's score; the composer says he's working with "one of the finest orchestras in the world" but fails to identify it by name. Finally, "A Conversation" (2 mins.) sees Stan Lee holding court on set with co-producer Craig Kyle and script doctor J. Michael Straczynski--who, like Lee, has a cameo in Thor--and endorsing the production in his inimitably hyperbolic way.
"Marvel One-Shot: The Consultant" (4 mins., HD/DD 5.1) is a transparently awful bit of retcon that tries to account for The Incredible Hulk's post-credits teaser by bookending it with exposition from the overworked Clark Gregg. The idea, I think, is to explain the absence of William Hurt's General Ross in the upcoming The Avengers, previewed elsewhere in a mock trailer, "Road to The Avengers" (3 mins., HD/DD 5.1), that's mostly carnival bark from writer-director Joss Whedon. BD-Live trailers for Captain America and the Thor videogame cue up on startup while teaser and theatrical trailers for Thor and a spot for the animated series "The Avengers" (HD, all) round out the platter. Occupying a second slot in the keepcase is a combination DVD/Digital Copy of the film; Blu-ray 3D version sold separately. Originally published: September 20, 2011.