Life is not realistic. No person has ever stood up, looked around, and thought, “this is all just so realistic”. It’s a term reserved to describing depictions of life, how believable they feel to the character or world, and more importantly, to the viewer. But any viewer will know that life is rarely governed by one tone, or logic, even sense. There is too much variation to fit the term ‘realistic’ as everyone’s personal definition of life is vastly different. Whose to say each of us see the world the same way, let alone colours the same way. Try describing a colour without using other colours or objects as verbal references. Even if two people were seeing the same colour, let’s say red, they may describe it in completely oppositional ways. One might focus on its warm tone, another on it’s extreme and volatile nature. These people are picturing different things as they describe the colour, and so their definitions are more indicative of them than the colour itself. If person two acquaints red with volatile things, like red hot fire, blood, and so forth, then that may change the way the colour appears in their perception. Same colour, two people, and thus two different realities for that colour. I mention colour for a specific reason, as colour is one of the more frequent ways films get labeled as ‘realistic’. With the right colour grading, you can make a film look pretty acceptable, or rather, unremarkable. It’s not something the audience is meant to pay attention to, because the work is intentionally seamless, as though the camera is your own eye.
Films with unusual palettes stand apart, because they emphasize that colour is something the audience is meant to notice. A film saturated with dark muddy greens, for instance, is probably building an uneasy environment that adds to the film’s world and narrative building. There are plenty of films that veer towards neon colours, especially horror films like Suspiria (1977), where colour adds to the film’s violent dream quality. These films are traditionally unreal, however, because they are already focusing on strange subjects, making their strange colour palettes feel acceptable. That implies that audiences have unofficially agreed on what reality should look like (at least colour wise) in a ‘realistic’ film, versus a film like Suspiria where the narrative is intentionally bizarre. What’s funny is that audiences have agreed to the unremarkable, they have decided that ‘realistic’ is what we don’t notice in a film, versus what we do. So, what does it mean when a film approaches a subject/narrative that does not belong to this reality, but does so through a ‘realistic’ lens? A period piece or a sci-fi film for instance. Why choose to be visually ‘realistic’ in these environments when the audience has no idea what those environments are like?
You’ll notice I emphasize ‘visual’ here, because even when films move away from our reality, their story is targeting a specific audience who has to vaguely understand what is going on. There has to be some logic that the audience can pick up, even if the visuals are literally out of this world. So, speech and narrative don’t have to be entirely realistic or rational, they just have to be familiar enough to draw in the audience. Colour, meanwhile, doesn’t have to be realistic at all, because even ‘realistic’ films with unremarkable saturation require extensive editing and attention. It’s all manipulated and fake, so why make it look unremarkable? I am speaking mainly about space movies, films which take place either in space or on a different planet. We have received, in recent years, a string of dark and dusty planets in film, ones whose entire design is essentially an Ikea geometric catalogue. These planets look like earth, and sometimes that’s because of budget issues, other times because the creators want the audience to recognize themselves and their environment in the story. There are other ways of doing this, however, so once again, why does space look, and forgive me here, boring? You could do anything, no one has been to this planet, and the story is entirely made up. So why choose realism?
I recently saw a sci-fi film, which I won’t mention by name here, which received broad acclaim by filmmakers and audiences, specifically for the visuals. In my honest and biased opinion, the film was so dark that I couldn’t see half the visuals, and I found myself becoming increasingly frustrated that this planet was just clearly earth. I understand that the film is an adaptation, I’ve read the book, but why does sand have to be the same colour as it is on earth? The film could have gone with purple, anything really. Purple sand planet filled with insane designs, ones that might even look ugly to popular modern aesthetics. It could have been something truly challenging that doesn’t even make sense because it’s out of this world. But it didn’t, it stayed fairly mute and acceptable, which was disappointing considering the amount of bright and crazy art I have seen inspired by the books over the years. Now, I am a bit of a hypocrite in this discussion because I have already written at length about the issues around ‘accuracy’ in film, mainly with historical films. Articles on why it’s so important to do research, and to create detailed depictions of what reality looked like, while also addressing the issues therein. Even in those articles, however, I try to stress that making a true period ‘accurate’ film is impossible, because you can’t recreate the past, and recreating shouldn’t be the goal. It’s representing something in a complex and full light, not just repeating what is currently aesthetic but actually changing the way we understand what is current by showing where that came from or showing that elements of it have always existed in some form. That can often be visiting an era or story to complicate the nostalgia given to it or addressing underreported elements of it without simplifying things. Now that said, I love chaos and movies which reject genre and audience expectation, which opens up a whole other conversation about realism in film.
“What were we went out to this wilderness to find?”
-The Witch (2015)
Something strange happens when a period film refuses modern aesthetics. It’s technically rejecting realism, just modern realism, simply because it pays so much attention to the past, and in doing so, modern aesthetics, dialogue, and experience become out of place. That approach makes this type of period films unrealistic, despite the fact they are going out of their way to be historically realistic. Take a film like Robert Eggers’ The Witch (2015), which has been heralded as one of the most realistic depictions of Puritans in New England during the 17th century, even the dialect. That film, unfortunately, went on to be unfairly labeled as boring and confusing by certain audiences, who weren’t expecting an unreal narrative, unreal to them I mean. Instead, films like The Witch allow audiences to understand what the past was like without replicating the present, which films like Little Women (2019) do with their designs.
Certain sci-fi films have done the same, gone out of their way to consult with scientists and physicists to create as accurate a depiction of space as possible, films like Interstellar (2014). I am not really interested in speaking on those sci-fi ventures, because myself and other audiences don’t know enough about this science to know if it’s realistic, we just accept that it is because that is what it’s known for. These ‘accurate’ space movies are a little different than period films because their narratives are often speculative, asking what could happen if we visited a certain planet, based on what we currently know. If it’s a historic space movie, like a film about the moon landing, it’s a recent history, which is often motivated by present politics (like the American dream or propaganda), versus a movie focusing on the 1800s where modern politics are a little more disguised. Period films certainly have speculation, and are based on what we know currently, which can change, but it’s still different by comparison. People are far more likely to walk through a museum or historic site, the very location where events took place, than to visit these planets, and so there is a degree of separation between these types of ‘accuracy’, sort of. If you are interested in learning more, from an actual expert, on ‘accuracy’ in period and even fantasy media, I highly recommend this recent video by Bernadette Banner, along with her entire channel. She does an excellent job of fully examining why historic dress is so important to media and beyond, and how contemporary costume makers apply a mix of history and logic to shows like Game of Thrones. For the purposes of this article, I am interested in space films which are entirely fictional, planets that either don’t exist or we have little knowledge of, and then seeing what they do, if they still try to be realistic or if they reject realism, and for good reason.
“Summon the shadows of ages past, when the thread spinning Norns ruled the fates of men.”
–The Northman (2022)
I came across a good example of this dynamic after seeing Thor: Love and Thunder (2022) a few weeks after seeing The Northman (2022). It’s hard to compare these films because one is a period drama/thriller, and the other is a space adventure with flying goats and rainbow bridges. There is no overlap with tone and intention, no overlap at all except, they arrive from a similar background. They present Norse mythology from two stand points, one trying to replicate what that mythology and faith would have looked like historically, the other discussing what the use of mythology and Gods are to modern audiences. They also come away with similar messages, as both Amleth and Gorr suggest that the faithful are ultimately puppets in some cosmic game, and while Amleth has no choice but to follow along an enact his bloody vengeance (an eye for an eye), Gorr rejects this system and instead goes after the Gods themselves. The Northman is another Eggers’ film, and so like The Witch, Eggers did extensive research, consulting with multiple esteemed professors to adapt this old epic to the big screen. Each of his film emphasize that you are not just watching a story, you are learning about the past, and old forms of storytelling, and they do that by immersing you in this history and expecting you to follow along, versus simplifying things for modern audiences. Now, none of his films have been just historic, each feature something paranormal or otherworldly, and each are highly stylizing their historical accuracy. Similar to David Lowery’s The Green Knight (2021), The Northman pairs well when reading these epics or studying this era, because along with being entertaining, it visualizes so many of the unspoken elements in these texts, like what honour actually looked like, not just how it plays out but the choice to be honourable. I will say, unlike The Green Knight, I didn’t want to write about The Northman. I sort of watched and enjoyed it but, because I was already vaguely familiar with texts from that era, I had nothing to say. That was until I saw Thor: Love and Thunder, a film whose narrative and reception highlights this conversation about realism, and where it belongs in history/myth versus space films.
“The only ones who Gods care about is themselves. So this is my vow. All gods will die.”
–Thor: Love and Thunder (2022)
The first two Thor films are dark, moody, and try to follow a specific version of Norse mythology, one defined by modern necessity. They are these gilded epics where everything is serious and on par with a Shakespearian drama, which figures because they were directed by Kenneth Branagh, who has starred in and directed multiple Shakespeare plays and film adaptations. The first Thor films are interesting, but nothing compared to Taika Waititi’s Thor: Ragnarok (2017), which is not only colourful and funny, but takes its mythology in a different and surprisingly ‘accurate’ direction. What The Northman and the first two Thor films share is this attention to serious mythology, as serious as it would have been taken when these Gods and stories were circulated on mass. Their main purpose is to argue that these myths are ancient, underly everything, and remain relevant. Thor: Ragnarok does not argue this, it assumes you already know, and so it veers towards the more chaotic and bizarre elements of Norse mythology, ones which often get buried in this serious and occasionally damaging reading.
If you’ve visited any Norse mythology, you’ll know just how strange it can get, as it’s equally epic and chaotic. That goes for all mythology and religion really if you spend any time thinking about what the events in these stories would have actually looked like. But what is important to note with Norse mythology, in particular, is that modern Neo-Nazi groups have aligned themselves with a false and inaccurate version of that mythology, one which praises extreme and violent white supremacy and male rage. It’s infuriating for the professionals I know who study actual Norse mythology, in fact, there are multiple books on this subject just explaining the history of this racist usage, why it doesn’t represent the Norse pantheon and myths, and the level of Queer representation in those myths that is brushed aside in this violent usage. I mention this both because it’s important in any modern conversation about Norse myth, but also because this racist version of Norse mythology comes from media inventions. These Nazis aren’t reading actual lore, they are getting terrible translations, reading quick summaries, picking and choosing lines, listening to too many Wagner inventions, making up stuff, or watching movies.
“I Will Avenge You, Father. I Will Save You, Mother. I Will Kill You, Fjölnir.”
My first thoughts walking into The Northman were that I was the only woman present, that everyone was white, and perhaps more urgently, everyone was angry for some reason. I felt hyper aware, that kind of tense you get when you’re at a concert and you feel like a fight is going to break out nearby. There was one guy furiously texting while scowling, another arguing with his friend in the back. This was going on throughout the movie, which was intense to begin with. Mind you, this was a matinee long after the film had been released. I have no idea why this crowd emerged for my random screening. I kept wondering, surrounded by these angry guys, if someone would see this film and then try to work it into their warped view of Norse mythology. Now, The Northman doesn’t follow this racist rhetoric, director Eggers has even discussed his own hesitation, noting in an interview with Forbes,
“I wasn’t interested in Vikings as a kid. I didn’t like macho stuff, and the right-wing, Nazi misappropriation of Viking culture cemented my disinterest as an adult. When I went to Iceland, the landscapes were so epic and brutal and awe-inspiring, but this is not a newsflash; however, experiencing it firsthand made me pick up the Icelandic sagas, and then I became interested in Vikings.”
I do recommend seeing the film, it’s quite fantastic, but it does glorify the whole male rage deal, and while yes, it criticizes it by suggesting that no one in the film (other than maybe Olga) is a good or heroic figure, that criticism is not outright, especially if you are an idiot. It takes itself, and the story it is adapting, very serious, and again, that’s not a bad thing, but it follows a trend that does have some consequences. Thor: Ragnarok and Thor: Love and Thunder refuse to follow that trend by instead ‘restoring’ myth to this insane and epic place. I think there is a degree of accuracy to them, not that they are following any specific myths or even the way these characters appear in myths, but they are picking up elements and chaos from these myths and showing how we as modern audiences can understand these works without trying for this serious realism, both tone and colour wise. There is humour inside these stories and myth, for instance, there is a sequence in the Icelandic tale The Saga of Egill Skall-Grimsson, where Egill engages in political eyebrow warfare. It’s both serious and hilarious, both are true. Or the Norse myth where Loki turns into a horse and gets pregnant, just go ahead, google that.
It’s also crucial to note that Thor: Love and Thunder is largely focused on fatherhood, mental health, and what it means to be a hero, beyond the catchphrases and capes. Both it and Thor: Ragnarok are actively dismantling these toxic Norse mythology readings, ones which are entirely focused on glorified violence, white supremacy, being a manly man, for lack of a better term. Waititi’s Thor films show heroes like Thor in a complex light, and suggest that beyond all the mythic power, there’s a far more relatable emotional crisis happening, not just a physical and violent crisis. Thor: Ragnarok goes even further by arguing that utopias like Asgard have a bloody history and violent cover up, as Odin imprisoned his own daughter, Hela, and slaughtered their soldiers so he could change the story of Asgard, and make himself appear more benevolent. We even see an actual cover up in the film, as Hela destroys the ceiling mosaic in the grand hall, which depicted a peaceful version of Asgard’s history, to reveal a violent mosaic, the truth of how Asgard obtained its power. It’s easy to compare this scene with the violent readings of Norse mythology, it’s as though the film is pulling back the curtain to reveal and visualize what is currently underling every discussion about Norse mythology. You can’t just cover it up and not address it, it’s foundational to every modern depiction of these heroes, and so having featured this moment, the film moves on with it’s criticism to literally destroy Asgard and start over, to make this history better, moving forward in New Asgard.
“Spoken like a true Thor.”
–Thor: Love and Thunder (2022)
Returning to colour, both Thor: Ragnarok and Thor: Love and Thunder highlight extreme 80s colour pallets, and fully embrace the idea that this story is impossible, these planets don’t exist, so let’s have fun. I have seen some criticism of that, mainly from fanboys who want Thor to return to this dark and serious tone, which is beside the point. Both of these later Thor films have serious and heartfelt moments within this chaos, taking these issues serious while still having humour to them, because that is often the case in life. They are an adaptation, of both the myths and comics, but one which refuses to do something that has already been done, which is really interesting. Having your film be realistic is a skill, but so is showing that something bizarre can resonate without abandoning that chaos to become something all too mundane. As I said in my introduction, realism is a depiction, one which feels true, even though it’s entirely manipulated by a huge crew. It is possible to have that feeling and refuse to be visually unremarkable, because movies have this incredible power to show us something that is both impossible and true, so why not embrace that? Purple sand planets for all.