The Film Thor: Place, Race, Family, and Terrorists

What does the film Thor have to do with black people? Well many people, including people of color, helped to make Thor the # 1 movies across the country in the past week.

Oh yeah, and  the fabulous Idris Elba as Heimdall, a guardian of the portals between worlds, had a small role! Some hardcore comic fans were not thrilled that Idris, a black man, portraying a Norseman. Read more in  an UK Guardian article.

Controversy around race and ethnicity never sleeps. Hey, it’s a film based on mythology and the comics. Mythology through the millennium has been fluid, keeping in mind that the stories of Thor are rooted in ancient Euro-Indo civilizations. Getting really technical, Euro-Indo civilization goes back to Africa, the cradle of all humankind and civilization on earth.

Marvel Comics and director Kenneth Branagh did not invent the Thor narrative. Thor is Norse, a god of thunder who wields a huge hammer that looks more like a mallet, part of Norse mythology. The god represents fertility, a shield to humanity, and lightening/storms–all woven into the film.

Ok, some less serious talk! Those of you who love the Marvel Comics universe, get ready to don you 3-D glasses. Thor, subtitled The God of Thunder on some of the posters opens in the night in the New Mexico desert. Later, we see the desert in the light, the stark beauty of sand and rocks, and wide expanses typical of the desert Southwest.  Throughout the film, the scenes shift back forth and forth from New Mexico on earth; Asgard, Thor’s home planet and site of his cathedral-esque city; and Jotunheim the Ice Planet and home of the Frost Giants.

The portals between worlds take the form of tornadoes, allowing Thor and the Asgards to travel through worm holes, short-cuts planet to planet. Each arrival is a whirling man-made tornado of warp travel echoing modern disasters like the 2005 Hurricane Katrina and more recent flooding along the Mississippi River in 2011.

Thor, played by Chris Hemsworth (remember him as George Kirk, James Kirk’s dad in the Star Trek reboot?) hails from Asgard and is the protagonist. I’m using the word hails because Thor’s dialogue is straight out of Tudor England. And no wonder: we’d need subtitles for ancient Norse and director Branagh was weaned on Shakespeare in his many turns in Shakespeare on film including Hamlet. Gotta love that Middle English.

Branagh liberally borrows from the trope of familial violence in which men struggle for power, particularly a throne, from ancient Greek plays and Shakespearean tragedies.  For a more modern take, men and some women battle one another for the presidency of the United States, seen by some as the pinnacle of success in society. The battle of wills between Odin and his sons Thor and Loki, and the power struggle for the crown between the two sons is quintessentially human in and outside the family.

There’s a love story too, also very human: Thor falls in love with Jane Foster played by Natalie Portman. I thought that the relationship was under-developed and superficial. Girls likes hot hunky guy. Guy thinks winsome girl got sexyback. Girl and guy fall in love. Clearly, I was more interested in the family dynamics.

Of course evil takes many forms in the film. Such tension is necessary in mythology, literature, and film. The Frost Giants, much like their Ice planet  are chilling dark forms, the former dark grey massive icy humanoids and the latter a jagged place of dark ice. Science fiction is always a placeholder for current events. These giants are bound in America’s fears of TERRORISTS including Al Qaeda and Osama Bin Laden. Perhaps Loki, Thor’s brother, is a bin Laden or Saddam Hussein. America–much like the Asgard monarchy–has turned in on itself fearing the terrorist bogey man at every turn. And sadly darkness has long been used negatively in how people of color are seen and treated.

All-in-all the movie on the surface is not as complex or well crafted as the first Spiderman film and Dark Night series, but as one of the first blockbuster entries for the summer, it’s a fun light ride. Still we as film-goers can go deeper. As was true of Invasion of the Body Snatchers and The Day the Earth Stood Still, science fiction films mirror our deeper fears in society. The controversy of Idris playing a Norseman in a film is just one example.

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Predators: Survival of the Fittest in a Busted Paradise?

SPOILER ALERT

To know your enemy, you must become your enemy.    ~ Sun Tzu, The Art of War

If you’ve been on this planet long enough you’ve seen Predator, Predator 2, and Aliens vs. Predators (AVPR). The latest installment is Predators.

 

Beyond the earlier films, Predators is a product of many influences and reflects history. It is  an homage to Richard Connell’s “The Most Dangerous Game,” a short story of humans hunting humans. I think of slaveholders hunting the enslaved in the forests and swamps of the American South up to the mid-19th century. Ultimately, the film is about “survival of the fittest,” a term used to describe one of Charles Darwin’s scientific theories.

The story or plot. A multicultural group is dropped by parachute into what looks like the Amazon. Paradise? I think not. Battle-ready mercenary types–all except for a doctor who is the odd one out–do not know their where-a-bouts.

Soon they learn two things: that this aint planet earth and they are being hunted. How do they know it isn’t planet earth? First, a leaf dropped in water spins as if the gravitational pull is out of wack. Second, the sun doesn’t move. Perhaps in both these instances the rock they are on is no longer spinning on its axis? And third,  they walk to edge of a ravine looking up to see three planets above them with one so close it looks like it could be touched. Perhaps the ravine is the point where the planet broke apart. Are they on a moon? An asteroid? A planet? A chunk of a shattered planet? No matter. They are trapped.

The hunted realize they are being hunted in a jungle of a game preserve. They are the animals. One by one, they get picked off. The first to go are a Latino and African American–both men. The screenwriters and director stuck to the old horror/science fiction trope of killing off the men of color first. A second African American man (Lawrence Fishburne is hilarious) isn’t far behind when he is blasted to pieces by the predators, the hunters.

Throughout the film, one character attempts the philosophical concluding that hunting has alway been primal to humans, what it means to be human. So are those hunted in the movies just as soul-less as the alien predators? Is this a morality tale concerning predation by people of other creatures and the planet earth in 2010? Maybe the filmmakers aren’t that smart. The predators are getting to know the humans.

Homo sapiens throughout time have been aggressive.  Much of the first activity of humans in pre-history was hunting and gathering as means of survival. Farms, villages, towns, and cities came much later. A sly visual reference to this pre-history are the stegasaurus-hunting dogs encountered by the game/humans. Since pre-historic times, in modern times, humans have become the mightiest hunters on the planet.

Sadly, for the people in the movie the tables have been cruelly turned, and they are hunted. Royce, the central character, played by ripped Adrien Brody is the chorus of this Greek tragedy, the narrator of the human/alien murder and mayhem. As the plot progresses, he muses out loud, “We’re being hunted,” “we are the game,” “we are being flushed out and tested.” Duh.

Mud was a critical plot device in the the first Predator, and water and dirt sources of life, show up again in Predators. It will save the humans. If you saw the first movie starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, then you know what I’m talking about. Mud once again become emblematic or symbolic of life, as one hunter is triumphant over another. Go see the movie to learn the meaning of the mud, and how Royce figures out the Predators’ game.

 

In the end, two survive, a man and a woman. We are left with the image of Adam (Brody) and Eve (Alice Braga), two busted people left to muck it out in  busted jungle paradise. Or have they already been kicked out of paradise, and this alien rock are the wages of sin? Looks like hell to me.

At this point Adam and Eve need to be on a first name basis because all they have are each other:

 

Adam says, “I’m Royce.”

Eve responds: “Nice to meet to meet you, Royce. I’m Isabella.”

He closes with: “Let’s find a way off this *&^*^%* planet.”

Ah, courtship and romance.

With that said, I see a Predators 2 in the works with more stegosaurus-hunter dogs–agains shades of runaway slaves trapped in a tree by a hound–bounding through the jungle, along with a star-studded array of aliens skulking about.  Nimrod Antal–one can only hopes he directs again–bring it.