A combination of tax breaks and photogenic scenery has led to a boom of American productions utilizing Iceland’s unique landscape.
In cases like "Prometheus," "Oblivion" and Christopher Nolan's upcoming "Interstellar," the black sand dunes become backdrop for alien planets or a post-apocalyptic Earth; in "Game of Thrones," the green valleys and barren mountains become the perfect spot to capture the parts of the fantasy world Westeros. But in these cases, Iceland is merely a stand-in for a place that doesn't exist.
There are exceptions of course: James Bond visited a CGI-heavy Iceland in 2002's dreadful "Die Another Day," and Ben Stiller's titular hero in "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" visits Iceland in search of a missing photograph. Once there, he must escape the volcanic eruption of Eyjafjallajökull — but more crucially, Iceland also becomes a stand-in for Greenland, Afghanistan and the Himalayans. As Ben Stiller's character travels the globe, the actual Ben Stiller remains safely mid-Atlantic: a win-win situation for both the filmmaker and Iceland's economy.
Following the one-two punch of its economic collapse and the Eyjafjallajökull volcanic eruption – the one that stopped all air traffic for a few days in 2010 - Iceland was in desperate need of an image readjustment. What could possibly make people want to visit the country crippled by its bankers and where a volcanic eruption had created ill will with millions of air travelers?
The Icelandic Tourist Bureau's resulting campaign, Inspired by Iceland, was a phenomenal social media success, increasing both online searches about the country as well as tourism.
It's hard not to think about the Inspired by Iceland campaign – and especially the ad that kicked the campaign off and inspired multiple user versions on YouTube - while watching Aaron Katz and Martha Stephens' "Land Ho!," which opens Friday.
The film tells the story of two former brothers-in-law, played by "This is Martin Bonner" star Paul Eenhoorn and Earl Lynn Nelson (who previously appeared in Stephens' earlier film "Pilgrim Song" but otherwise does not act). Together, they embark on a trip to Iceland with the goal — as Nelsons' character Mitch puts it — to "get their groove back." Together they spend time in the Reykjavík, go to fancy restaurants, go clubbing with Nelson’s much-younger cousin and finally embark on a road trip to experience waterfalls, geysers, hot springs and all the other tourist activities available in the country.
Given the fact that previous American productions have used Iceland as a backdrop without context, the idea of two promising indie directors collaborating on a Iceland-set travelogue sounded exciting, with the hopes of being an antidote in both approach and tone from the other productions that have shot in the country.
The film's two stars are exceedingly charming, and their dynamic - a sort of retired "Superbad" shtick in which Nelson's inappropriate words and actions constantly embarrass the more reserved Eenhoorn – works to great effect. As you follow them throughout their trip you gain greater insight into their shared experiences, and the different paths their lives have taken them down. Eenhoorn is especially convincing as the more overtly melancholic of the pair and in certain scenes the regret he has over some of his decisions feels ingrained in every move and line-reading.
But the filmmaking on display in "Land Ho!" betrays the lived-in charm of the leads and it becomes virtually impossible to differentiate shots and sequences from the film from those on display in the Inspired by Iceland campaign. There are no less than three unique dialog-free musical montages in the film, each of which has the two leads frolicking and dancing to 80’s inflected pop music. At one point early in the film, Eenhoorn and Nelson stand by the pond in central Reykjavík, feeding bread to ducks and the camera slowly pans away from them, as if the camera operator just couldn’t help showing of the quaint display in the background.
The feeling you get is that the filmmakers end up submitting to the grandeur of the country’s scenery, almost to the point where it overtakes the narrative. Further underlying the film’s advertisement-like feel are the helpful onscreen titles which tell the viewer exactly which tourist attraction is being visited. The two leads also take turns reading up on the sights from a guidebook, basically offering a checklist of activities for prospective tourists.
That's not necessarily a wrong-headed decision. The score by Keegan DeWitt, the cinematography by Andrew Reed and the performances by Eenhoorn and Nelson manage to sell the character's experiences, but the filmmaking adheres so closely to the form and grammar of commercials that any discernible character motivation winds up playing second fiddle to the imagery.
This is especially true in the film’s final sequence – a completely narratively unnecessary trip to the Blue Lagoon – which ends up playing with some "dirty weekend" stereotypes that have been conjured up about trips to Iceland.
The biggest disappointment of "Land Ho!" is how inconsequential Iceland comes across as a whole. Apart from one stoned guy they meet at a club, the pair never interacts with Icelanders aside from those working service jobs, and instead hang out with other Americans. This could be a comment not unlike the one Sofia Coppola made in "Lost in Translation" – where tourists only end up bonding with the people who share their cultural background, not the people they’re ostensibly visiting – but the general positive tone of the film betrays any possibility of a deeper analysis.
There's no question that tourist experiences can be shaped into an interesting and affecting drama, but the challenge is to approach it without delivering just a moving postcard of the tourist attraction itself.
Friðrik Þór Friðrikson tackled just that in his 1995 Iceland-set film "Cold Fever," in which a Japanese businessman travels to Iceland to visit the place where his parents died in order to fulfill an old burial ritual. His journey interacting with natives and tourists alike (including a couple on the lam played by Lili Taylor and Fisher Stevens) is both one of befuddlement over local customs and one that carries huge emotional punch, something "Land Ho!" lacks.
"Cold Fever" was made at a time when tourism in Iceland was basically nonexistent, so much has changed that gives "Land Ho!" plenty to showcase. Unfortunately, the film itself never becomes more than a surprisingly long and moving advertisement for a country that deserves a whole lot more.
Originally from Iceland, Ari Gunnar Thorsteinsson is a film critic based in Sweden.