A film review by Craig J. Koban November 21, 2020

MORTAL jj

2020, R, 104 mins.

Nat Wolff as Eric  /  Priyanka Bose as Hathaway  /  Iben Akerlie as Christine  /  Arthur Hakalahti as Ole

Directed by André Øvredal  /  Written by Øvredal, Norman Lesperance, and Geoff Bussetil

MORTAL is a new Norwegian/American action thriller from director Andre Ovredal (TROLLHUNTER) that emerges as yet another entry in an increasingly exhausting line of movies with the premise of what if ordinary people possessed god-like powers...and it does so very little of anything compelling with it.  

That's not to say that compelling movies can't be made with this premise (see CHRONICLE), but MORTAL is so slow moving, so listless, and so serious minded with its subject matter that it frequently comes off as unintentional self parody.  And as a super hero origin tale, virtually no new creative ground is covered, which leaves the production feeling like an awfully long slog to sit through.  Imagine the most generic comic book adaptation with an unrelentingly dour vibe and you'll kind of get MORTAL in a nutshell. 

The film opens with a seemingly solemn title card that explains the definition of the word "mortal" (spoiler alert - it means "a human being" when used in noun form, according to Merriam Webster's Dictionary) before it grounds viewers in a respectfully engaging opening sequence that introduces us to Eric (Nat Wolfe), who's an American-Norwegian that appears to be stranded in the woods and sporting massive burns on parts of his body.  Without much warning, weather patterns begin to violently fluctuate in his proximity and even parts of the forest directly around him begin to spontaneously erupt into fire.  We learn that he was primarily responsible for farmland blaze that killed many of his relatives (but the hows and whys are not revealed).  One fateful encounter seals this protagonist's fate for the worse when he comes across a series of locals that make the mistake of threatening him.  "If you touch me again, you'll burn" he warns them.  They don't listen.  Eric's anger boils over (literally), leaving one of the young thugs crashing to the ground and foaming at the mouth. 

Word of this begins to spread, which captures the attention of not only local authorities, but a rather unscrupulous U.S. government agent named Hathaway (played rather unconvincingly by Priyanka Bose), who shows up with her entourage to give some rather dire warnings to Norway's collective police force.  Eric is eventually captured and taken into custody.  Tasked with interviewing him and getting a psychological profile is Christine (Iben Akerlie), who has been dealing with her own emotional wounds as of late as well.  The young psychologist tries her best to find an emotional way of breaking through to the troubled Eric while not fully grasping what's precisely wrong with him.  Her attitude towards him changes, though, when he shows his powers in full force in the interrogation room, which prompts her to help free him.  With both Christine and Eric now on the run as fugitives, it's up to Agent Hathaway to hunt the pair down, even while having sinister motives at play in her own right.   

 

 

MORTAL contains a few elements of promise, first of which being, as mentioned, that the establishing sequences that immediately drop us into Eric's on-the-run plight are modestly enthralling, seeing as we don't really know who he is, what's wrong with him, and why he's roughing it in the outdoors secluded from everyone.  He suffers from hellish nightmares of the surrounding woods catching on fire, and when he wakes up the environment around him is smoldering.  That bullying teen that came into contact with him early on was horrifically killed by Eric's mere gaze alone.  The hook of the opening sections of MORTAL hints at a tantalizing thriller to come that, unfortunately, never really materializes to its fullest.  On top of that, there are a lot of competently polished looking visual effects on display here via what I'm assuming is a low budget, some involving multiple highlight reel scenes revealing Eric's unique and symbiotic relationship with Mother Nature, being able to conjure up storm clouds and cracks of lighting at will.  Having said all of that, there's no denying that seeing Wolfe grunt, scream, and wince his way through one action montage like this after another grows a bit tedious after awhile. 

And speaking of Eric, this character (and his casting) is the largest issue with the film.  Despite initial intrigue with giving us a portal into his almost supernatural plight, Eric is simply not an interesting personality here at all, which is not assisted in the slightest by the miscasting of Wolfe (he's a fine young actor, but never is able to fully and authentically capture Eric's uncontrollable boiling point rage).  When he's not bellowing into the heavens and conjuring up demonic storms, Wolfe is just all one-note and dull posturing in his performance, and this categorically makes Eric fall so resoundingly flat as far as main characters go.  While not matching her co-stars over-the-top angst, Akerlie tries to go the softer and more sensitive route with her potentially fascinating character of the grief stricken doctor that finds it in herself to defy authority and help this cursed man.  Unfortunately for her, Christine emerges as an idiotically rendered sidekick, especially for the manner that she makes decisions throughout the course of the story that flies in the face of common sense and logic.  How could a woman this intelligent (which you would have to be in order to be a clinical psychologist) act so moronically? 

Yet, wait for it, Christine and Eric's relationship blossoms into romance as MORTAL careens towards one inexplicable plot detour to the next, and this has to be MORTAL's biggest, unpardonable sin.  Eric and Christine are not wholly likeable or relatable as characters, which leaves viewers struggling with why we should root for them as fugitive lovers.  The writing does a great disservice for its female characters in this respect, especially for how regressive minded it is (Christine simply exists as a plot device being used to break Eric out of jail and later serves the nonsensical purposes of becoming romantically involved with him...ugggh).  What does she see in this scar ravaged and dangerous person that appears to have the abilities to murder countless innocents without much fuss?  All the actors can do here is feebly attempt to generate some form of - ahem! - electrifying chemistry, but it's so woefully DOA in most respects.  The other female character in Bose's determined agent is hamstringed as well by some awful character motivations and some truly wooden dialogue.  One moment that has her on the phone with her superiors relaying Eric's staggeringly powerful abilities feels so riddled with lame thriller genre clichés that you just want to shake your head. 

I simply didn't care for Eric enough to care about seeing the mysteries surrounding his powers being revealed, and when they are in the film's climax (which delves into Norse mythology and a certain deity's rebirth...that's all I'm going to say) I was left feeling wholeheartedly underwhelmed.  MORTAL reminded me considerably of last year's lackluster BRIGHTBURN, another similar attempt to go the hard R-rated route to recontextualize a very famous well meaning super hero with a dark modern twist.  That film didn't work as a piece of subversive genre filmmaking, and neither does this one.   And - oy vey - the final moments of MORTAL engage is some truly laughable, last ditch attempts at sequel bait, setting up another film or series of films that no one that has endured this one will probably be clamoring for as the end credits roll by.   I will say, in closing, that Ovredal makes a fairly good looking picture here with strong production values that make great usage of Norway's impressive and opulent natural scenery.  But too much of MORTAL is unimaginatively dreary and dissatisfying; it's more irritatingly disposable than mindlessly awful.  The ingredients are here for a new take on the well worn super hero genre, but the resulting execution of these ideas lands with such a resounding thud...kind of like Thor's hammer striking the ground...but just way less exhilaratingly potent.    

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