Viking (TIFF 2022)

September 14th 2022

Welcome to the desert of the real: In Viking (2022), a sprightly and ironic morsel of Canadian content, the five members of the “Viking Society” decamp to a Quonset hut in the steppes of Alberta to simulate an expedition to Mars happening simultaneously overhead. The purpose is to enact the tasks and dynamics of the real expedition, in an effort to anticipate and workshop resolutions for evolving and potential conflicts; the Canadians on the ground were selected for their psychological compatibility with the American astronauts on the real mission overhead—similarities of temperament transcend the gender binary, so the Mars mission’s “Liz,” for instance, is played on Earth by a balding man in late middle age.

Director/co-writer Stéphane Lafleur’s first feature since Tu dors Nicole (2014) centers on Dave (Steve Laplante) a gym teacher and stargazer. Dave dreams of “slipping the surly bonds of Earth,” to paraphrase Ronald Reagan’s address to the nation after the Challenger disaster, but settles for a terrestrial mission, which will likewise take him away from his wife and friends for more than two years. Dave assumes the role of John Shepard, a decorated American officer. Along with his confreres, he awakens to daily check-in memos from his original, setting the day’s agenda and updating the reenactors on their mood and grievances. The quintet slips in and out of character—at regular psych evaluations, it’s emphasized that the Vikings should masturbate as frequently as their counterparts, no more and no less—and spar over both control of the mission and how accurately each other are supposed to color within the lines of the fiction. Viking calls to mind another deadpan-comic Canadian auteur’s recent project about power, interpersonal relationships, and role play: Nathan Fielder’s The Rehearsal.

The entire premise feels like a very Canadian joke, almost patriotic in its knowing self-deprecation: Their version of space exploration is staying at home and cosplaying as Americans (while still speaking French). The movie, too, embraces its beta identity with resourceful and grimly earthbound production design touches, from construction-site–trailer mugs and filing cabinets to the cheap spacesuits and plastic bubble helmets the Vikings don to go outside on missions. (In long shot, they wander beneath cliffs that really could stand in for the Red Planet in a studio spectacle, especially if Canada’s usual generous production tax subsidies apply.) Many Hollywood films about exploration emphasize a self-aggrandizing mythology of lonely masculine striving—don’t worry, baby, I’ll write you every day. As Dave travels further and further in Committing to the Bit, Viking becomes increasingly critical. Idolizing his imagined American double, he turns into someone he doesn’t recognize.

Viking is now showing at the Toronto International Film Festival.