“You may have thought that these were special effects,” Norway’s prime minister tells her nation in a televised address late in Netflix’s import action movie Troll, referring to news footage of a gigantic troll lumbering across the country. “But this is not a fairy tale,” she says. “This is real.” There’s a flash of meta humor in that line, because the monster, with its busy beard, bulbous nose, and glowering expression, really does look like a cartoony but well-designed special effect. There just isn’t a particularly realistic way to depict a 50-meter humanoid creature made of “earth and stone,” leaving Godzilla-style destruction in its wake. Still, Troll (not to be confused with the 1986 American horror movie of the same name, or its unrelated, notoriously all-time terrible sequel) is more of a sincere monster movie than a tongue-in-cheek exercise.
Leaving aside the self-aware aspect of a movie character insisting her movie story is “real,” the film’s troll isn’t a fairy-tale creature reimagined with the quasi-scientific explanations of a ’90s-style techno thriller or eco-disaster movie, or redesigned to look more natural. It looks like it could have stepped out of a storybook. And in spite of its use of Norwegian mythology, Troll owes as much to American disaster movies as it owes to old Japanese kaiju pictures.
In his home country, director Roar Uthaug has made a slasher movie, a children’s Christmas feature, and a historical thriller. But he’s probably best known for The Wave, a larger-scale disaster movie, and his sleek, muscular Tomb Raider reboot starring Alicia Vikander. In other words, he’s taken several cracks at Hollywood-style entertainment, in his home country and abroad. Troll, like The Wave, feels like a pared-down version of a Roland Emmerich blockbuster. Specifically, it resembles Emmerich’s 1998 version of Godzilla, reconfigured for greater speed and efficiency.
That might sound low-rent at best, and profoundly unnecessary at worst. But there are plenty of advantages to shedding Hollywood-approved bloat while maintaining a kind of gee-whiz energy. For one thing, Troll gets right to the point: When a mysterious incident leaves a trail of what look like gigantic footprints across the Norwegian countryside, the government calls in paleontologist Nora Tidemann (Ine Marie Wilmann) to consult. Nora, in turn, reconnects with her estranged father Tobias (Gard B. Eidsvold), a former folklore professor who has disappeared down a rabbit hole of his own fervent belief in the existence of mountain trolls. (The conspiracy-addled weirdo who turns out to be right is another Emmerich-beloved trope, and one that could probably stand a temporary retirement.)
The father-daughter material is pretty thin, as are the characters’ supporting allies: government nerd Andreas (Kim Falck), military man Kris Holm (Mads Sjøgård Pettersen), and token hacker Sigrid (Karoline Viktoria Sletteng Garvang). But the mini ensemble also has a likable, unfussy warmth. Even their silliest comic-relief bits are played with more grounding than the noisy caricatures favored by Emmerich or Michael Bay. Similarly, the movie refuses to impose a high-tech McGuffin on its monster-movie simplicity: A giant troll is heading toward Oslo for reasons the humans cannot understand. (At least until around the standard two-thirds mark of the movie.) They need to stop it from stomping on people, and they’re not sure how.
This lack of a clear objective does stall Troll’s dramatic momentum in spots. It’s hard to get invested in the obligatory clash between the outsiders and the military when neither party seems to have an opinion on what’s best to do in this situation, or even what the options are. Kill the troll? Study it? Befriend it? This is not a film of richly depicted sci-fi moral dilemmas, because the troll remains firmly in the realm of fairy tales turned real.
At times, Troll feels like it’s rebuking the very idea that monster movies might require any form of depth or metaphor. The trolls, for example, are said to have rampaged against the Christianization of Norway a thousand years ago. Sure enough, this resurfaced troll recoils at the sound of church bells, and can apparently smell Christian blood. But the movie ultimately doesn’t make much of these historically rooted details, in terms of how they relate to fears or clashing cultures. At one point, a character we barely know gives a rousing speech to a bunch of characters we don’t know at all, as if a little bit of inspirational yelling about not giving into fear will conjure a theme from material that appears actively averse to symbolism or subtext.
On that same straightforward level, however, Troll is a well-made giant-monster movie: The special effects look good, the action is legibly captured by Uthaug’s camera, and the monster has awesome destructive power that he depicts as if trolls are ornery animals rather than spiteful villains. Even the monster’s official introduction, 30 minutes or so into the movie, is handled as a clever framing trick, rather than the subject of endlessly protracted Spielbergian awe. Roar Uthaug is not a director who seems destined for greater, grander epics, and that’s one of his best qualities. He makes polished B-movies without the delusions of A-list grandeur.
Troll is streaming on Netflix now.