Fields glow kryptonite green against volcanic black soil, while not-so-distant mountains smoke and spew hot red lava above the heads of hardy sheep. Nowhere else on Earth looks like Iceland, which is why so many productions over the past decade — from “Interstellar” and “Oblivion” to “Game of Thrones” and “Thor” — have used its peerless primordial terrain to represent alternate dimensions and far-off planets.
Iceland plays itself in Robert Eggers’ “The Northman,” a brutal tale of 10th-century Viking revenge that makes evocative use of far more than just the scenery to be found in this stunning Nordic outpost. Teaming with local novelist Sjón, Eggers — a visionary director with a preternatural interest in history, as evidenced by his rigorously detail-oriented horror movies “The Witch” and “The Lighthouse” — also draws from the region’s rich folklore, looking to the sagas of Iceland, as well as the same Scandinavian legend that inspired Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” to mount the classiest Vikesploitation epic you can imagine, complete with a doomsday Björk cameo. That it’s ultimately rather dull and hardly any fun is almost beside the point.
Blame that largely on Alexander Skarsgård, son of towering European talent Stellan (“Breaking the Waves”). Alexander’s as handsome a star as Sweden has produced, but sorely lacks the charisma to carry a movie of this scale — rumored to have cost $90 million. Though he’s bulked up significantly since his comparably physical turn in 2016’s largely unnecessary “The Legend of Tarzan,” muscles only go so far to compensate for the strange emptiness behind young Skarsgård’s eyes. And so, this scion of art-house royalty has much to prove in a starring role that borrows heavily from “Gladiator” and pretty much every Mel Gibson movie (but mostly “Braveheart”).
The story is simple — too simple, alas: Puny prince Amleth (played as a boy by Oscar Novak) eagerly welcomes his father, Viking king Aurvandil (Ethan Hawke), back from battle, undergoing an initiation ceremony that will set him on course to rule the tribe one day. “You are dogs who wish to become men,” growls the fool (Willem Dafoe), though Amleth’s animal instincts will not reveal themselves until much later. Upon exiting the trippy ritual, father and son are confronted by half-brother Fjölnir (Claes Bang), who relieves the king of his crown, and the head to which it is attached, then orders the same fate for his son, who escapes, repeating the words, “I will avenge you, Father. I will save you, Mother. I will kill you, Fjölnir.”
This mantra is practically all the plot “The Northman” offers, skipping forward across the years that many would find most compelling — when this tender child acquires the skills of strength and mind that make him capable of facing off against his uncle, who has taken Amleth’s mother, Gudrún (Nicole Kidman, blazing with unrivaled fury), as his queen. In most respects, Eggers is a unique artist with strong, singular ideas of how to script, stage and pace his films, and while “The Northman” is nothing if not a signature addition to a most original oeuvre — no one but Eggers would or could have reimagined “Hamlet” thus — it lacks the element of surprise that made “The Witch” and “The Lighthouse” feel like instant classics.
Over the course of a portentous 137 minutes, Amleth will dutifully avenge his father, “save” his mother and face off against Fjölnir, but none of it makes even a fraction of the emotional impact we’d expect from even the crassest sword-and-sandal movie. Eggers’ films tend to play on a different, more self-conscious level, where audiences’ pleasure comes as much from atmosphere and all-around weirdness as it does from deranged narratives that, in retrospect, are destined to have played out exactly as they did. If anything, the oddity factor should be greater here than ever, given Eggers’ fetishistic commitment to weaving elements of Norse mythology alongside the punishing Icelandic action. To that end, visions of screaming Valkyries (model Ineta Sliuzaite) and a haggard He-Witch (Ingvar Sigurðsson) pack a hallucinatory punch amid the otherworldly locales.
Still, “The Northman” feels unusually thin, with less meat on its bones than 2007’s schlocky “Pathfinder” or your basic “Conan” movie. Eggers, who formerly let his freak flag fly with A24, has reverted to a more conventional mode for this relatively mainstream Focus Features release, eschewing the elevated language of “The Lighthouse” and avoiding the kind of surrealism seen in David Lowery’s “The Green Knight” last year — a film that should have paved the way for far greater expressionism here. The movie that “The Northman” most resembles is “The Revenant,” an impressively orchestrated marathon of misery that prioritized directorial skill over audience engagement. Eggers’ feat seems similarly monomaniacal in its mission, often at the expense of the human dimension.
After raiding a Slavic village in a spectacular early scene, filmed in what appears to be a single uninterrupted take, Amleth hears the prediction that will snap him out of berserker mode and set him in motion to fulfill his destiny. His rather implausible plan involves branding his chest and sailing to Iceland with a boat full of Slavic slaves, including an almond-eyed beauty with platinum hair named Olga (Anya Taylor-Joy).
Olga proves to be both an asset and a distraction to Amleth upon reaching Iceland, suggesting a path his life could take if he were to set aside his fixation on revenge in favor of romance, Óðinn willing. This alternative is made explicit in a scene that seems all wrong for the movie, set aboard a Viking longship, as the actors stand crudely haloed against CG backdrops, suggesting either reshoots (this is only a guess, though it would explain what doesn’t work about the last act of the film) or a grave miscalculation as to what motivates the final, fiery showdown between Amleth and Fjölnir.
There’s a tried-and-true formula for revenge movies, which are tragic by their very nature, that depends on repeated demonstrations of evil by a figure who deserves to be destroyed. That model would require Fjölnir to do something unforgivable to Olga, since she’s the only thing in the world Amleth cares about. Failing that, he comes across as a cruel and merciless protagonist, bent on crushing the life of a man whom fate has already humbled. We still want to see him succeed, battling it out in the buff against the flaming Gates of Hel, but by this point, a film that has shown such painstaking attention to craft over character seems to be running more on testosterone than sensitivity.