Sunday, May 9, 2010

ASTROPIA (2007)

Our ongoing tour of the wild world of cinema takes us to Iceland, which presents a comedy that was the country's box-office champion of 2007. I don't know if it ever played theaters in the U.S., but Vanguard Cinema has taken a chance on the film in DVD form on the fairly safe assumption that its subject matter has some cross-border appeal. "Reminiscent of Clerks," says the box-cover blurb, if for no other reason than that the main character becomes a clerk at a comic-book store (for which the film is named) and falls in with its all-too knowledgable staff. That character is Hildur, whom the cover copy tries to sell as an Icelandic Paris Hilton. She looks the part but lacks the wealth. For her, the simple life becomes all too real when her car-salesman boyfriend is arrested on a racketeering charge. Her looks and her relationship with the suspect turn her into a media celebrity, but she hardly benefits from it. The Astropia store represents her last best hope for a job, and the management is so stunned by her mere presence that they hire her on the spot, with no questions asked, despite her near-total ignorance of comics, anime, RPGs, etc.

Hildur (Ragnhildur Steinunn Jonsdottir, above right, in her movie debut) travels a desperate career path from car dealership hostess to the door of Astropia (below, with Borg exiting).

Gunnar B. Gudmundsson's film stakes out its own territory when Hildur decides that she should learn about fantasy role playing in order to sell the product better. She discovers a dark, stuffy basement with the usual suspects diligently rolling dice and doing their character-development paperwork. She's handed a sheet and told that that's her character. The situation looks doomed from the beginning, but once the game master begins to narrate, the walls of the basement literally explode, immersing Hildur in a fantasy world. The writers prepared us for this by opening the film with another fantasy scene inspired by Hildur's reading of romance novels, one in particular with an Old West setting. She has an inner life and an imagination after all, and while she initially questions the conventions of D&D or whatever the gang is playing -- she never calls her character anything but "Hildur," for instance -- she gradually gets into the whole experience. It helps that she's starting to fall for another player, but she's also discovering her inner nerd, or if you prefer, her receptivity to new concepts and experiences. And that does make her a better salesman: she can move the product by telling laymen that it's "just like daydreaming, only with game rules."


But Astropia isn't finished yet. Hildur's old boyfriend breaks out of jail and takes the entire prison population with him. He wants a necklace he's left with Hildur; inside is a flash drive or something with Cayman Island bank account numbers and other goodies he needs. He and Hildur have grown estranged since his sentencing as she questions his constant demands (cigarettes, a blow-up doll, etc.) and finds her new life more congenial. But that doesn't stop Jolli, who kidnaps her with his new private army. One of the gamers has witnessed this, however, and calls for aid....and suddenly the real world becomes a fantasy landscape as the elf, dwarf, wizard, etc. ride to the rescue against the evil lord and his army of monsters. Our heroes use their powers and skills (which range from light saber combat to administering oversized wedgies) to rout the evil ones until it's down to Hildur and Jolli battling with swords and martial arts to decide the battle. And when it's over the Icelandic paparazzi arrive, and the scene shifts again to show a devastated real landscape of burning cars and escaped cons strewn along the street. Real havoc has been wrought -- don't ask me how -- and good has triumphed over evil.


There's something nearly Scorsesean about this absurd triumph of delusion over common sense; the finale somehow reminded me of the end of The King of Comedy, though the devastation it reveals is also just slightly reminiscent (albeit bloodlessly) of Taxi Driver, but I suppose there's less ambiguity about the truth of Hildur's triumph. It sounds ridiculous to invoke Scorsese while reviewing an Icelandic nerd comedy, but I calls 'em as I sees 'em. But maybe it's just me. In any event, don't get the wrong idea. Astropia isn't really a very good or very funny film. Most of its humor is based on Hildur's fish-out-of-water presence among the gamers, and on pop-culture name dropping. Before watching Astropia I never appreciated how much the comics-store culture is an American colonization of the world (allied with Japan), but the Icelandic nerds wear Star Trek costumes, read American comics and novels and recite Star Wars dialogue in English. These details unto themselves were probably funny for Icelandic audiences, but it'll probably leave American viewers shrugging off the thought that nerds are the same all over the world. That might make Astropia more accessible to Americans, but it might also make most of them question the point of looking at it. Gudmundsson and his writers had some interesting ideas, but in translation at least they lacked the wit and visual inventiveness to turn those ideas into a great comedy. I can only recommend it to people from the comics-RPG milieu with a sense of humor about themselves, and to people making a similar world tour to mine who can't find another Icelandic film....Or anyone who likes what they see in the American trailer, uploaded to YouTube by njd666

1 comment:

John Alexander said...

Just watched a sub-titled version of this movie and thought it was cool/different and enjoyed it!