Is the idea of a “low-budget epic” an oxymoron? I realize an ingenious filmmaker like Neill Blomkamp was able to make the $30 million District 9 look like it cost about five times that much, but I’m talking about really working with scraps. Heck, for $30 million, the filmmakers behind Viking drama Hammer of the Gods could’ve probably made this film 10 times. The Blu-ray case makes it seem like a SyFy-level production, but director Farren Blackburn admirably had his sights set considerably higher.
Viking ruler Bagsecg (James Cosmo) has been mortally wounded during his war against the growing Saxon resistance. From his deathbed, the king orders his son Steinar (Charlie Bewley) to locate banished oldest brother Hakan (Elliot Cowan) so that Hakan can take his rightful place on the throne. (Steinar has another older brother named Harald, played by Finlay Robertson, who also appears to have his sights set on the crown.) Steinar embarks on this mission flanked by his loyal crew: right-hand man Hagen (Clive Standen), superstitious Jokul (Guy Flanagan), and crass savage Grim (Michael Jibson). The foursome, along with a few unexpected allies, soon find themselves venturing into the heart of darkness.
Despite a title that makes it sound like an extremely poor man’s version of Thor, Hammer of the Gods is more of a Viking gloss on Apocalypse Now. There’s also a healthy dose of Saving Private Ryan, given that our heroes are asked to risk their lives across dangerous ground to find someone who may not even be alive. These are lofty aspirations for a no-budget actioner that could’ve easily dedicated most of its energy to cramming in as many decapitations into its 98-minute running time as possible. Unfortunately, Blackburn, a veteran of British TV making his feature-film directorial debut, and writer Matthew Read have mostly crafted their story as a simplistic, coming-of-age saga we’ve seen many times before.
Steinar, you see, is a practical warrior to the point that he doesn’t share his companions’ belief in omens or the gods. (The film’s director similarly keeps a surprising amount of the action earthbound; so if you’re looking for magic or mjolnir, you’re in the wrong place.) Hammer of the Gods plays out as Steinar’s journey toward becoming a worthy successor to his father’s throne. Unfortunately, Twilight/Vampire Diaries actor Brewley isn’t yet up to the task of carrying a movie on his sculpted shoulders. The only time he really comes alive as a performer is during the cave-bound final act; the only thing missing was someone telling Steinar he was an errand boy…sent by grocery clerks…Brewley is constantly outshone by more charismatic performers like Cosmo (Braveheart, Game of Thrones), who blows him off the screen despite the fact that’s he’s lying on his back during his two brief scenes. Ivan Kaye pops up about halfway through as Ivar, a flamboyant grizzly bear of a warrior. Kaye is pretty terrific and he makes almost everyone else in the cast look like a stiff.
Hammer of the Gods mostly plays it straight and resists camp. (Except maybe for the well-timed lightning strikes during the first fight scene.) The most notable indulgence from Blackburn is the contemporary sensibility he brought to the action scenes. For example, Steinar and his three friends are introduced through Guy Ritchie-style title cards and freeze frames. I also feel like there was a lot less dubstep when the Vikings and Saxons were duking it out for real in the 9th century. Obviously, this movie isn’t exactly striving for historical accuracy, but the modern touches weren’t entirely necessary.
Blackburn proves to be at least somewhat adept at staging a straightforward period piece. Hammer of the Gods works best when the movie is at its most un-showy. As a result, a quick, brutal scene with a woman being stoned is more effective than some of the frenetic fighting. The best sequence is Steinar’s climactic one-on-one fight in a deep dark pit.
Hammer of the Gods attempts to keep its audience off balance — the characters don’t necessarily die in the order you’d expect — and features a hero who may be killing off a piece of his past self with every key one-on-one confrontation. The problem is the movie mostly appears to stumble into these interesting ideas. Then again, that’s what happens when a filmmaker at least attempts to reach for what’s on the top shelf instead of merely grabbing the low-hanging shlocky action fruit.
Hammer of the Gods is presented in an aspect ratio of 2.40:1 The 1080p image is arrived at with an AVC MPEG-4 codec at an average of 37 mbps. The film features the sort of soggy, muted, gray-ish palette viewers have come to expect from films set in England muddy period pieces. The ever-present grain suits the film’s gritty story quite well. Black levels are strong and exceedingly deep. This is absolutely crucial for the film’s climax, which takes place almost entirely inside a cave. Though the picture is reasonably sharp — especially when the film gives us panoramic shots of the British countryside — the image doesn’t quite jump off the screen…but I suspect it’s not really supposed to.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track features an aggressive mix that doesn’t take full advantage of its five-channel/high definition pedigree. Other than the sound of crashing waves emanating from the rears near the beginning, there is a surprising lack of immersion. The sound remains mostly fixed to the front speakers, which is especially disappointing during the action-packed fight sequences. Dialogue comes through decently enough, and the subs thump to life whenever the pulsating score from Benjamin Wallfisch kicks in, but this track feels like a missed opportunity.
All of the bonus material is presented in HD.
Making of Hammer of the Gods: (21:54) This behind-the-scenes doc opens with director Farren Blackburn talking about his desire to make an action epic with an “otherworldly” and “weird” tone. We also learn the lead actors stayed in the same Welsh cottage, which helped with their bonding. On top of that, there’s footage from the breathtaking locations and a look at the impressive fight choreography. This “Making of” drags a bit in parts, but is definitely worth a look.
Behind the Visual Effects: (6:16) Blackburn had visual effects supervisor Seb Barker with him on set so they could determine what was actually achievable, given the budgetary constraints. This featurette also highlights both the overt visual effects (various dismemberments) and the stuff viewers don’t think about (like digitally removing period-inappropriate sheep from the background).
Interviews: (38:20) Includes chats with actors Charlie Bewley (Steinar), Clive Standen (Hagen), Guy Flanagan (Jokul) and Michael Jibson (Grim). The performers talk about their characters and their experiences during the production. The notable bits from these interviews are included in the “Making of.” Features a Play All option.
AXS TV: A Look at Hammer of the Gods: (3:03) More of a promotional mini-doc for the film that also includes material from the “Making of.” Just watch the “Making of.”
It might just be that it takes a certain amount of scope (and production values) to convincingly transport audiences to another time and tell a larger-than-life story. Those resources weren’t exactly available to the people behind Hammer of the Gods, but I still commend them for swinging for the fences. (Never mind that the ball ultimately died at the warning track.)
This good looking Blu-ray makes for a fine viewing option if you’re not in the mood to think too much, but you also want something more substantial than SyFy’s brand of shlock.