PLOT: A man has to come to terms with his immense, newfound powers — and what they mean before the future of mankind — before they get too out of control and cause more destruction.
REVIEW: On paper, the origin story of a modern god who’s struggling to come to terms with his newfound powers ripped straight from Norse mythology is incredibly my shit. With MORTAL, writer/director André Øvredal’s (SCARY STORIES TO TELL IN THE DARK, TROLLHUNTERS) uses a grounded approach to try and explore what it means to wield incredible power and be at the forefront of a world that’s about to change forever — and does so by making use of some incredible mythology that deserves to be explored outside of Marvel movies. While within that premise is a treasure trove of character development, lore and excitement just waiting to be unearthed, Øvredal never quite unearths it, spending too much of the runtime focusing on character drama centered on characters that never manage to be all that interesting.
Having made a name for himself with some excellent horror features, Øvredal has tried his hand at something a bit grittier with an aim to be more profound – and in turn – put his spin on a sort of subgenre some may link to the superhero genre. But this is certainly more in the realm of high fantasy, Øvredal emphasizes themes of straight godliness in a Norwegian setting. At the center is Eric (Nat Wolff), a young man who can’t pull off the “DiCaprio a la THE REVENANT” look, living in exile in the dense woods after seeing what his powers can do to people firsthand. He’s left with severe burn marks on his body from when said powers get out of control, sometimes causing the trees around him to burst into flames at the hint of any of Eric’s emotional turmoil. Think a somehow drearier version of MAN OF STEEL, with the overcast skies and grim tone setting the stage for this tale of a man who doesn’t quite know how to control/what to do with all his power.
Wolff does what he can with the role, making up for the lack of meaty dialogue with a subdued intensity, blending confusion and pain in a character who is trying to keep a lid on all his potential. What this power is exactly is sort of all over the place, with him uncontrollably affecting nature around him. He’s able to manipulate water and can cause violent storms that unleash bolts of lightning. He’s also dangerous to touch, like when some punk kid tries to start a fight and bluntly – almost comically – collapses and dies instantly. But for as much chaos as these powers cause, Øvredal keeps a lid on much of the CGI work and keeps the focus on what drama is there, rightly assuming it’s in how Eric comes to terms with his powers that make for the more interesting story.
But as much as Øvredal may acknowledge that in his bones, he’s not quite able to translate compelling character drama onto the screen. The tone and slow-pacing may be there, but the clunky dialogue and lack of complex characterization leave characters stranded in a movie that comes off as far too bleak for its own good. While in police custody, Eric meets Christine (Iben Akerlie), who gets him to safety after seeing the tragedy in him while the police only see a monster…or just a bum who could use a bath. Once again, their relationship has the idea behind it to make for something rewarding, but their interactions are plagued by conversations filled with nothingness, as Eric only ever seems to speak when it pertains to explaining what his powers can do and why he’s hesitant to use them. We don’t know much about his past, nor does he get chances to have much of a personality beyond being cursed with power. Christine seeks to understand him and those powers, and occasionally shout at him that he needs to control them when shit is hitting the fan. She even has a little bit of faith in Eric, positing that he may even be “the new Jesus,” only for Eric to astutely point that whatever gifts Jesus may have had probably didn’t kill people. Some ham-fisted dialogue aside, there’s a lot of empathy between them, but neither feels fleshed out as people beyond what their current circumstances allow, on top of the inescapable reality that MORTAL is a movie where the supporting characters are all more interesting than the lead. This aside from one cop hunting them down, played by Priyanka Bose, who plays her character do grimly it’s as if she’s trying to out-act the clouds.
Øvredal’s desire to deliver something more grounded with less emphasis on action is admirable, but still, a little more spectacle can’t help but feel needed to move things along. Encased in an overall grey color scheme, action scenes are chaotic are lightning bolt scatter and crash around whoever is in the general area, with the focus more on the intensity of Eric’s power and on the damage they cause rather than intricately woven set pieces. They’re blunt to a fault, and sometimes feel shoe-horned in when they don’t feel natural to the progression of the story – and are ultimately forgettable with a lack of stakes or characters worth caring about at their core.
As clunky and often unengaging as the first two acts are, the final act finds Øvredal finally getting to the real meat of the story as the parallels between Eric’s powers and the god of thunder himself, Thor, are drawn. In these final moments, the fascinating lore of the story comes front and center as Eric, Christine and the police officer who now joins their cause (Per Frisch), set out to find an item that may help Eric unlock and harness his power. When all these elements come together the movie gets a much-needed sense of scope and really drives home the profundity of Eric’s journey, as citizens rally to his side in hope as they witness the rise of this new god-figure. Even though not much is established very well on a character front to really make the journey rewarding, it’s hard not to be invested in what’s happening when it starts to dig into the actual adventure side of the story. In these final moments, I found myself jumping on board and even hopeful for where the story and characters may go.
But so quickly is much of this squandered when, over the course of about one minute, a turn is taken so unnecessarily harsh that whatever good feelings and themes around having some kind of hope in people are tarnished. Viewers of the movie BRIGHTBURN will see some similarities, but while that setup makes sense, this rushed setup for a cliffhanger hints at a sequel (and more interesting film) we’re not likely to get. There’s a lot of valuable material in MORTAL, but Øvreda wastes too much time not knowing what to do with it, and just when it seems he’s got a grip he bashes it all to pieces with a mighty hammer, leaving everything in a bleak pile of rubble.