Sunday, May 19, 2024

‘Mortal’ Truncates Myth For an Origin Story

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Mortal is a cinematic misfire. A Norwegian-English film, it is a movie that wants to be many things but never really settles on any of them. But worst of all is not even a little bit fun or engaging.

Andre Overdal is a director who I’ve enjoyed in the past, but Mortal shows a man adrift in his vision. At times it feels as if this is a movie pulled from the bowels of the Young Adult genre. Only the romance is never sweeping, the atmosphere is too grim, and the heroes are much too dull.

On the whole, the story feels disjointed. Unsurprising when you consider it has a trio of screenwriters, Norman Lesperance, Geoff Bussteil, and Overdal himself. Three writers credited to a script is, in of itself, not necessarily a bad sign. But the proof, as they say, is in the pudding.

Moody and dark, Mortal tries to blend the superhero genre with actual Norse mythology. This is fitting and keenly prescient when you consider that fans and defenders of the ubiquitous genre that is managing to thrive despite a pandemic and uneven lockdown, often argue “Comics are our modern-day mythology.” This argument extends to the movies as well. 

But one of the problems of this argument, made evident by Mortal, is that actual myths are weird, vague, and at times inconsistent. Superhero movies are owned by corporations that act in a way that demands hegemony as well as strict adherence to canon in a way that mythologies simply do not.

Mortal proves how thin the “superheroes are our modern myth” argument is. Overdal takes an actual mythology and tries to bend it to the superhero genre and in the process robs it of its grand epic scale, strange characters, and bizarre syncopation. He replaces them instead with bland morose and mopey characters such as Nat Wolff’s Eric, the kind that could not exist in an actual myth but thrives in the superhero genre. 

By trying to make Mortal a superhero movie, he somehow manages to lose anything Norwegian about its mythology and instead gives us an origin story we’ve seen done to death. All the jagged edges of Norwegian culture have been sandpapered down so as to make Eric more palpable for a superhero audience.

Eric himself is a mystery. He is picked up by police at the beginning of the movie wandering in the wilderness alone and homeless. Some teens see him walking along the side of the road and decide to mock and ridicule him. One of them even gets in Eric’s face but is warned not to touch him or he will burn him. The boy doesn’t listen to Eric, and his insides are burned to a cinder.

Don’t worry, Overdal doesn’t do anything as interesting as showing Eric burning the boy alive from the inside. It is merely a wide shot from a distance and a cut to the boy falling to the ground, his flesh burned. Overdal is attempting to build suspense but the cost is boring the audience.

Wolff is a likable enough actor but he lacks the ineffable qualities of a leading character. At the very least he is miscast, as his broken cynical Eric comes across as petulant and grumpy due to Wolff’s youthful face. He seems too young for this story and this character.

For that matter so does Christine (Iben Arkelie), the psychologist who is brought in to question Eric after he is arrested for killing the boy. Christine has just lost a patient to suicide and is feeling lost and despondent. But Arkelie, much like Wolff, is too young for this story and though she tries, her character always seems just a shade or two unformed.

Mortal makes the unwise decision to try and build a romance between the two but never puts in the legwork to develop the tension. It just happens through a few shots of the two characters mooning at each other. But their longing looks feel as if these are children in grown-up costumes and the shots feel forced. So much so that whether this is a romance or whether these are just two people in search of some kind of companionship is never made all that clear. 

Until they kissed. At that moment I flinched. 

I flinched not because the kiss is so passionate but because rarely have I seen an onscreen couple with so little spark and lack of onscreen chemistry. The kisses they share are uncomfortable because they seem so performative and artificial.

Eric of course must go on the run once the United States Government arrives. Why or how the government knows anything about Eric is never explained, which I am fine with. If the rest of Mortal is any indication, the explanations are probably tedious and hackneyed and we’re all better off just filling in the blanks ourselves.

Most superhero movies would spend some time trying to figure out exactly what Eric’s powers are. To Overdal’s credit, he doesn’t seem to particularly care what Eric’s powers are. He prefers to slowly introduce them as the film unfolds. Which, if there was any consistency to his powers or how he uses them, this would be fine. But we don’t know, and so his powers are left to the narrative gods and the hobgoblins of plot mechanics.

We learn early on they are derived from his emotions. But even this doesn’t make sense as his emotions seem to trigger powers that do him little to no good at the time. For example, during the interrogation room, he shows himself to be able to be a sort of a low rent human torch as well as being able to manipulate water.

Yet, when he wakes up after being sedated on a helicopter and finds himself strapped to a medic cot, he causes a storm and directs lightning to strike the helicopter causing it to crash into a lake. Submerged underwater he can breathe, of course, and then remembers he can burn through things and begins to heat his wrists to melt the straps.

But Mr. Sherman, you say, perhaps he forgot he could use heat. After all, he’s not used to his powers. To which I say the first twenty minutes of the film are spent hinting at and informing us of the fact that his ability to catch fire or cause a fire is his primary motivators for isolation. 

The only reason he doesn’t burn through the straps is that Overdal and the script need to introduce more powers and find a way for the helicopter to crash into a lake for an action beat. Had any of this been entertaining or maybe even more over the top I wouldn’t have minded as much. But the characters are so one dimensional that any grit of self-awareness would collapse the already shaky set-up.

After the helicopter crashes Eric tracks down Christine and the two set out to flee Johnny Law and try to figure out the mystery of Eric’s power. Johnny Law here being Agent Hathaway (Priyanka Bose). Her reasoning for containing and quarantining Eric is murky at best. “I’m not saying he’s a bad person. I don’t care what he is.” 

That makes two of us.

They decide to head to the farm where Eric’s powers first manifested themselves. The farm is briefly mentioned early on but the way characters talk about the farm hints that the farm is more than just a farm. Soon everyone is racing to the farm.

Mortal, time and time again, tries to show us how world-weary Christine and Eric are. But instead, the film only succeeds in showing two baby-faced actors struggling to emote. It doesn’t help that as obviously talented as the leads are, their characters are not the brightest crayons in the box.

Maybe I’m just a worry wart but if I was with a man who is known to catch fire and start electrical storms without meaning to, maybe I wouldn’t leave him alone in a parked car at a gas station. I’m all for suspension of disbelief but the movie has to meet us halfway.

Soon, Overdal begins to imply that maybe Eric isn’t a superhero or a product of some failed lab experiment. What if he was a God? Mortal toys with the theological consequences of this but never with any kind of satisfying zeal. It’s all lip service. 

The chief of police Henrik (Per Frisch), who arrested Eric but also knows Christine and distrusts Hathaway, soon begins to help our heroes. Christine asks why and he says because he believes in God and he doesn’t want to be on the wrong side. Though I don’t think Henrik’s God and the Gods Overdal is hinting at are the same. 

Mortal starts stone-cold serious and mysterious and then gradually becomes more and more supernatural and pulpish. The film slowly becomes almost kooky and absurd, but it never enjoys itself in the process and by extension never becomes enjoyable. 

Roman Osin’s camera work is at times breathtaking. Overdal does allow Osin to go hog wild to great effect every once in a while. Such as the scene on the Bridge where Eric causes a storm to erupt with lightning bolts. Scenes like this are in themselves suspenseful and surpass much of what we’ve seen in more mainstream entries of the genre. Taken as part of the whole, however, the scene feels loud and pompous, as if overcompensating for the shallow brooding before and after the moment.

All of this comes barreling to a conclusion that is meant to be tragic but in reality, comes off just this side of tasteless. A kind of “twist” that makes me laugh in derision. The twist is out of the blue but somewhat predictable. But the real offense of the twist is how unnecessary it is. 

Mortal is such a shambling emotionally feeble movie that it becomes the last straw. The leads are far too young to pull off the world weary cynicism it’s trying to convey and the mood is too dower and oppressive for any real joy to puncture through during the triumphant moments. It somehow takes itself too seriously while still not taking aspects of itself seriously enough. 

Image courtesy of Saban Films

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