Cheapskate Reviews: Astropia

People just love to talk about Iceland.

When I asked people on Facebook to tell me what they knew about Iceland, my feed erupted with a veritable geyser of comments. Cold! Green! Volcanoes! Banking crisis! Geothermal energy! Vikings! Led Zeppelin! Great place for a layover! Diving! Björk! Aurora borealis! Old people doing crazy things with narwhal tusks!

Yes, people just love to talk about Iceland. But nobody talks about their film industry. And why would they? Icelandic films are playing to a market smaller than Cleveland. So when I discovered that an Icelandic comedy called Astropia was available for free on YouTube, I figured I’d give it a watch. I hadn’t the slightest idea what the movie was about, but when has that stopped me before?

The movie kicks off with our heroine, Hildur, reading a romance novel in the bathtub, and fantasizing about herself as the woman two cowboys are fighting over. (The novel is by Joan Wilder. That’s the name of Kathleen Turner’s romance novelist character in Romancing the Stone, the first of many references found in this film.)

Hildur and Jolli. Would you buy a used car from this man?

Hildur works at her boyfriend Jolli’s car dealership, acting as a sort of booth babe. Just before they head to work, Jolli gives Hilder his grandmother’s locket as a gift, and the opening credits play out in a comic-book style. I found it impossible not to associate rotoscoped images of Nordic people with A-Ha, but if you’re younger than me, you may not have this problem.

After brief establishing scenes of Hildur’s life, including the requisite bitchy gossip scene with her bitchy gossip friends, we head over to the dealership. Their sales event is spoiled when the police show up to arrest Jolli for an undisclosed crime. When Jolli tries to make a break for it, he gets hit by a car in a fairly amusing slapstick sequence that climaxes in the car taking out an observation platform and the guy atop the platform giving a Wilhelm scream as he falls. I can’t tell what Jolli is muttering as the police lead him away, but it’s captioned “Attica! Attica!”

With Jolli’s arrest all over the news, and Hildur’s source of income gone, her friends immediately abandon her.

BITCHY FRIEND: There comes a time when you just have to think of yourself.

After a very long, slow-motion shot of Hildur crying in the rain, accompanied by mournful guitar music, Hildur’s last resort is to walk to her sister Björt’s house and ask to crash at the place for a while. Hildur and Björt clearly aren’t close, and Björt’s son Snorri makes some grade-A faces of discomfort at the prospect of his glamorous aunt moving in.

I get this same expression on my face whenever someone tries to talk to me about chemtrails.

Hildur would probably continue to wallow in sadness if she didn’t get the chance to visit Jolli in jail. (The jail appears to be a leftover set piece from “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.”) Jolli’s arrest was front page news. It’s not clear why. I guess when you’re a country as small as Iceland, your idea of celebrity is a little different from the United States. Anywho, Jolli needs Hildur to sneak in some smokes so he can use them as currency, which means Hildur is going to have to get a job.

As Hildur reads the job listings in the paper, we get comic-book visions of Hildur failing shamefully at every possible job. She even makes a gigantic mess around the house and has no idea how to clean it up. Full credit to Ragnhildur Steinunn Jónsdóttir, who plays Hildur (and is a former Miss Iceland). She’s able to play Hildur as entirely useless without making the character unlikeable. Hildur’s been a kept woman all her adult life, so it’s no wonder she can’t do anything right.

Stuck babysitting Snorri, Hildur takes him out on the town… and they walk past a guy in full Borg costume. They’re headed for Astropia (finally!), the local comic book store (which offers 20% off Star Trek merchandise if you’re in costume). When she enters the store, all eyes are on her, and we get our first joke featuring nerd awkwardness around women, as store employee Peter tries to strike up a conversation.

PETER: Well, when you do read, what do you like to read?
HILDUR: I don’t know. Romance novels. Books by Joan Wilder.
PETER: Then you’ll love this one. Red Son.

Note how Peter’s backed Hildur into a wall so she can’t get away from his ramblings about Stalinist Superman.

Hildur doesn’t know the first thing about anything in this store, but they are hiring, and she needs a place to work, and the other customers seem to like her (a lot!)… so she joins the staff of Astropia.

There’s only one other woman in the store, a brunette with glasses, an unflattering haircut, and a baggy Batman t-shirt. When Hildur gets hired, the other woman “felt a great disturbance in the Force.” (Which she says in English.) She doesn’t get many lines, but she’s the easiest minor character to pin down. She’s the Nerd Queen who’s always felt more comfortable around men, and who feels threatened by the presence of a “Barbie” among her friends. Our Nerd Queen is rather unsubtly named “Beta.”

Back at the jail, Jolli is trying to get his hands on a sledgehammer to help him escape. His plan is delayed when Hildur’s first cigarette delivery is of a ladies’ brand, which are evidently not worth much. I’ll keep that in mind in case I go to jail someday—no Virginia Slims. Jolli is also none too pleased that Hildur is working at a nerd store.

After a night scene where Hildur wonders about her future, which is so dark I could barely see it and is an unwelcome change from the generally pleasant cinematography, Hildur returns to work the next day to familiarize herself with the store. Peter runs the comic book section. The store’s owner, Goggi, is in and out of the place, and a guy with very, very thick glasses named Flóki manages the DVD section. (Hildur’s never even heard of DVDs. I didn’t think she was supposed to be that much of a bimbo.)

FLÓKI: Here we have some great titles. My Neighbor Totoro. Akira. Howl’s Moving Castle. Ghost in the Shell.
HILDUR: And grown ups watch this?

Hildur’s going to be in charge of the RPG section, and no, she doesn’t know what those are, either. After Peter and Flóki bicker about Star Wars (“Don’t force me to bring up the Holiday Special!”), Peter reveals the movie’s thesis statement to Hildur.

So our plot is about an immature person who can’t function in society meeting another group of people who are immature and non-functional in a different way.

One of Beta’s friends, Dagur, wants to try to make the shop a little more welcoming, so he sidles up to Hildur to buy some Pokemon cards. He interrupts a Goth who’s trying to buy Eragon (!) and when Dagur suggests the Goth try a little something more depressing, he gets headbutted for his troubles.

Back at the apartment, the camera is awfully wobbly as Hildur thinks about her new job. Either this is to symbolize her unease, or the camera crew was just a little careless. Anyhow, it turns out that Dagur and Björt know each other: Dagur translates books and Björt draws their covers. Hildur starts carpooling with Dagur, although her attempts to change clothes in the car without Dagur looking end in predictable, but still mildly funny, disaster.

Jolli’s story is still all over the press, and his escape plan is proceeding on schedule, as the prisoners nonchalantly shake dust out of their clothes. Hildur is mentioned in all of these stories. Goggi, her boss, is in a fine position to console her, as he was humiliated a few years ago when one of his LARPing videos went viral. (Hildur has a long and effective pause before she asks what LARPing is.)

GOGGI: The world has the memory of a goldfish.

Meanwhile, as Snorri hangs out at the store, Flóki tries to introduce him to his favorite films, such as The Exorcist. And who among us won’t be able to relate to this?

SNORRI: But isn’t it disgusting?
FLÓKI: Uh, yeah… but when you reach a certain age the magic sorta dies. You start to think about cinematography and effects. Lights and sound effects and stuff like that. D’ya know what I mean?

Beta plays Nerd Gatekeeper with Hildur, showing her up by demonstrating Hildur doesn’t know the difference between the World of Darkness and the Book of Vile Darkness. In order to save her job, Hildur decides to learn to play RPGs. Goggi is the dungeonmaster, and they play at Dagur’s house.

They’re playing Dungeons and Dragons, and like so many new players, Hildur is absolutely baffled as the rest of her party (including Dagur and Beta) discuss game mechanics. But once the game properly begins, Hildur is in imagination mode again, as she pictures herself with her new compatriots… but with a slight change in order.

HILDUR: I refuse to look like this.… It’s a sexist stereotype!
GOGGI: Sorry, but that’s how people look in fantasy. Just check out any fantasy movie you can find.
HILDUR: Made by sex starved nerds who don’t know any real people?

Now, Hildur didn’t object to being eye candy at Jolli’s car dealership, but this is a sign that she’s maturing enough as a person to stick up for herself. It’s also entirely appropriate for the movie to point out that when nerds exercise their fantasies at the gaming table without due discretion, they risk repelling new players. (See also: magical realm)

Hildur the dual-wielding ranger, now more modestly attired.

The team of adventurers is traveling through the kingdom of Gormenghast, fighting the evil wizard who sent the Deadites upon the land. (Yes, I know, I know.) Their entire session is spent on a series of battles with orcs, and here’s where I need to make an aside.

The movie’s target audience is clearly nerds who are at least moderately familiar with roleplaying. Such nerds understand that Dungeons and Dragons is actually two games stapled together: a rather free-form game of make-believe when your characters aren’t in combat, and a tactical board game when your characters are in combat. Now, I can see how Hildur might enjoy the non-combat portion of the game, given her propensity for daydreaming, but there hasn’t been anything in the movie that would establish that she’d enjoy the fights. If I had been writing this movie, I would’ve had a group of orcs appear, only for Hildur to come up with a clever plan to avoid the fight. Maybe even a clever plan inspired by a Joan Wilder novel. (And if I’d been running a game for someone like Hildur in real life, I’d pick a game that’s less tactically oriented. Probably Lady Blackbird, which is a swashbuckling tale of romance.)

Jolli’s been convicted of… whatever it was, and is serving the nightmarishly long term of four years, so naturally his escape plan kicks into high gear. He needs a blow-up doll for the next phase, and Hildur, who’s becoming increasingly uncomfortable at their visits, can’t afford one. Who knew that blow-up dolls were so expensive in Iceland?

Hildur and Dagur. Dagur has this expression of perpetual confusion on his face throughout the movie.

If it wasn’t clear before that Dagur is the new love interest, it becomes clear when Hildur goes back to his place to retrieve her forgotten purse. She learns that Dagur’s book-translating business includes some of her favorite romance novels, and that Dagur has a side job as a dance instructor. No, really. He wears 19th-century garb and teaches old people traditional dances. Good on the movie for making Dagur more than just a nice guy. Dagur has interesting hobbies, hobbies that he can talk to Hildur about.

Now that Hildur knows how to play RPGs, she’s quite good at making sales. When Peter’s attempt to sell a curious man on an RPG fails (“What would you do if you were in a dark cave?” “Leave.”), Hildur swoops in with her pitch:

HILDUR: It’s like daydreaming, only with game rules.

He leaves with a stack of games, and Hildur’s excitement lasts right up until a reporter arrives to ask for comments on Jolli’s sentencing.

REPORTER: I can help you write [your quote] or you can write it yourself.

This must be the lack of integrity in gaming journalism I’ve heard so much about. She’s not prepared to discuss this, and at the next game, we see Hildur imagine beating the hell out of a dead guy to relieve her frustration. That’s a fine visual, but I’m not sure how that would play out at the table. The rest of the encounter takes place at night and I can’t tell what’s happening. I think Beta and Hildur are teaming up to fight catgirls.

After the session, Hildur and Dagur share an awkward hug, and Dagur proposes allowing Hildur to stay in his spare room. As their affection blossoms, a guy who looks like a young John Madden lurks outside the house and gets a photo of the two of them together. I initially thought this was a tabloid reporter, but it turns out this guy works for Jolli.

When Hildur returns to the jail, Jolli is none too happy to see her. He’s seen the photos and he’s had enough. He dumps her, and Hildur cries outside in the rain, fumbling with Jolli’s grandmother’s locket, to the tune of sad music. (The sad music turns out to be playing on John Madden’s car radio, and he makes the throat-slit gesture as he drives by Dagur.)

Hildur contemplates her future.

It’s time for Jolli to escape from jail, and the scene plays out entirely unseriously. There’s some glorious faux-Jan Hammer synth music and a prisoner who just doesn’t feel like running. Nevertheless, Iceland’s finest are unable to stop the escape, and soon Jolli is on the lam.

Hildur and Dagur have a housewarming party, and it’s the most awkward thing this side of “The Office.” Beta presents Hildur with a knife and demands payment for it, Björt and Flóki squabble over the horror films Flóki gave Björt’s son, and everyone mocks the hell out of Goggi for his LARP adventure. The cast does an excellent job with awkward body language during this scene—Goggi, in particular, shows off how uncomfortable he is. (And frankly, I don’t know why the people who are supposed to be his friends are mocking him for this when it obviously makes him sad.)

The party ends more-or-less successfully, with Björt deciding to hook up with Goggi for a completely undisclosed reason. Alas, Jolli calls and demands to see Hildur, and she complies. Dagur drives Hildur to the meeting site, where Jolli jumps Hildur and spirits her away.

Dagur sees this and calls for help (from his friends, not the police) and a low-speed car chase through the streets of Reykjavik turns into a fantasy horse chase. Jolli, now kitted out as some kind of Viking, announces that his grandmother’s necklace was the key: his secret bank account numbers were hidden inside. He’s just about to get away with the necklace (it’s unclear what he’s going to do with Hildur) when the nerds arrive.

Beta kicks off the climactic battle, which really could’ve been lit better.

I wasn’t very impressed by Astropia. Too often it falls into the geek trap of thinking that a reference is the same thing as a joke. And while the jailbreak scenes were the funniest in the film, I felt like they detracted from the “real” story of Hildur maturing as a person. Jolli and his whole kidnapping scheme could’ve been excised to show more of Hildur repairing her relationship with her sister and her nephew, and I was disappointed that we never saw Hildur’s bitchy friends return to scorn her for her newfound nerdery.

What Works:
• The premise of an immature woman teaming up with a group of immature nerds to grow up together is quite a good one.
• It’s sometimes hard to tell if someone is a good actor in a subtitled movie, but I found the cast to be convincing.
• There aren’t many daytime scenes of the fantasy world, but the ones we see are gorgeous.

What Doesn’t:
• Poor pacing leaves Hildur less developed as a character than she ought to be.
• The fantasy scenes are just repetitive fights and don’t contain the imaginative shenanigans that are the most fun part of roleplaying.
• Leeroy Jenkins wasn’t funny the first time. Christ.

Watch It If:
You like romantic comedies *and* nerd memes: one or the other is not sufficient.

About the author

Patrick Alexander