It’s no secret that originality is dead in film. In fact, across all creative mediums the very nature of innovation is an illusion – how our minds are shaped is a reflection of everyone we’ve known and everything to which we’ve been exposed over our life. Every book, song, television show, conversation and meditation congeals in our mind and sometimes an idea springs forth. Barbara Grizzuti Harrison said that there are no original ideas, only original people, and that rings very true. Everything has been done before but it’s how we approach these things – these visions – and how we each adhere to a unique doctrine that can result in something wonderful.
Then there are unoriginal people, individuals who seem to revel in familiarity and cliché or are either completely, blissfully oblivious to all that has come before. If the former is the case then Hammer of the Gods is a rip-off orgy and the filmmakers’ seed is splattered all across the screen. If it’s the latter instance then writer Mathew Read should lock himself in a padded room because he is one of the unluckiest people of all time. Almost nothing gels and so little shines with inspiration in this Viking tale that when the inherently acrid nature of the story sinks in, we’re left with one of the most misguided and ultimately pointless films to arrive in some time.
In all fairness, Hammer of the Gods isn’t entirely inept; it’s simply useless at being distinctive in any way. The British Highlands look as intimidating and coldly beautiful as ever and there are shots set up that relieve director Farren Blackburn of some of the blame. Likewise, lead Charlie Bewley as a young Norse prince does the very best he can with the material, bringing a primal physicality to the role and line delivery heads above nearly everyone else. But that’s approximately where the compliments end and where we must delve into how insultingly pilfering this gritty actionier really is.
The year is 870 AD and the Viking hold on Britain is beginning to waver as the Saxon counter offensive is starting to take its toll. Landing on foreign shores (with the eventual task of finding his long lost brother) is the young prince Steinar and his companions Hagen (Clive Standen), Grim (Michael Jibson) and Jokul (Guy Flanagan), who encounter a band of native defenders which they promptly slaughter (after each being given a shiny, block-letter title card accompanied by a loud chord of course).
Aside from Steinar, each of these characters is straight out of King Arthur, right down to the specialty weapon they each carry. Hagan is Lancelot, the best friend of the hero who at times questions his motives and decisions and Grim is Ray Winstone’s Bors, the brash, loud mouthed brute. Then there is the spiritualist Jokul, who is the brother to the hawk carrying Tristan (played in King Arthur by Mads Mikkelsen). Oh and don’t forget the slave-turned-warrior princess Astrid (cough, Keira Knightly’s Guinevere) who they meet up with along the way.
Even the aesthetics mimic that 2004 blockbuster. In fact, Hammer of the Gods copies The Eagle, Centurion and every other film set in the period. As nice as it sometimes looks, there is nothing to distinguish it from all that has come before. We even have some elite Saxon forces that somehow managed to nab the garb from 300’s Persian Immortals. Furthermore (but to save me smashing my keyboard out of frustration), I won’t even delve into the similarities between this effort and History’s strong period series Vikings. What I can’t glean over is the fact that Hammer of the Gods even cast a member of Vikings, in the form of Clive Standen. Good for him to be carving out a niche, bad for the credibility of this blunder.
But wait you ask, what if you’re normally easily to forgive thievery, cliché and well treaded territory? Well, I’m sorry to say I’ve just re-dampened my blanket. Amidst all the familiar clutter there is the inherent issue with having Vikings as a film’s protagonist, let alone warriors portrayed as they are in Hammer of the Gods. It is very difficult in my mind to stand behind a pillaging, raping, invading force who gleefully slaughters farmers who simply want to protect their land. Even the aforementioned Vikings suffers to an extent from this conundrum but it has by far come the closest to striking the correct balance.
If being the villains in the eyes of a country isn’t difficult enough to overcome thematically, they make a number of this small pack utterly detestable. Grim makes gay slurs, disobeys orders and at one instance (which is also the film’s most completely useless sequence – one which embodies the write off Hammer of the Gods truly is) beats and then murders a captive woman who was originally targeted to be saved from some abusive individuals. Then there is another character they meet in their travels by the name of Ivar (Ivan Kaye) who is perplexed as to why he was exiled for raping young boys and then expects us to laugh along as he and the other crack jokes about it.
But as if to think mimickery was behind us as the climax rolls along, Hammer of the Gods goes full out Valhalla Rising, resulting in one of the most bizarre, stylistically awkward and dramatically inert endings I can recall (not surprisingly Read did some writing on that flick too). As a final slap in the face, after this trek across Britain to fulfill his father’s order, Steinar has been transformed into a brutal warrior, stripped of any and all empathy. And here I was thinking the more complex, morally torn soldier was more compelling – what was I thinking? Evolving from grunt to general or inexperienced to battle hardened is one thing but to go from conflicted prince to blood thirsty king is just as misguided as everything else this film offers.
Bad films can be forgiven from time to time, especially those which have a reach that exceed its grasp, but what cannot be overlooked are movies that insult the audience. With a multitude of stolen ideas, only two well choreographed fight scenes and one developed character, Hammer of the Gods falls on its sword from the opening scene.