Can you get the same satisfaction from a round of “NBA 2K” as you can from dunking in real life? Is a trip to the San Diego Zoo Safari Park good enough to check off “African safari” on your bucket list? Does pelting your brother-in-law’s best man with paintballs at the bachelor party make you a combat veteran? Look away if you don’t want to spoil the answers, but: No, no, and no, and puttering around a Quonset hut pretending to be an astronaut isn’t the same thing as hitching a rocket to Mars, either. “Viking,” the latest project from criminally slept on Canadian filmmaker Stéphane Lafleur, tackles formulations of these questions couched in the astronaut scenario.
It’s mind-boggling that Lafleur hasn’t made a feature in 8 years, whether for lack of material or financial giddyup; he’s a natural at deadpan comedy, a deceptively difficult niche to work in and whose customs few directors fundamentally “get.” Being deadpan and being human aren’t mutually exclusive. If anything they’re mutually reliant. Anyone can drop a punchline with a flat affect, but it takes real talent to Trojan horse a reason for viewers to give a damn inside the affectation. Filmmakers like Wes Anderson, Jim Hosking, Richard Ayoade, and Hal Hartley play with that kind of humor all the time. Lafleur deserves a mention in that number, too.
The dialogue in “Viking” is aloof to the ear, but every scene in the movie breathes with visible warmth. Lafleur’s affection for his characters is obvious. He cares. The characters care, too, some of them maybe too much. We meet “Viking’s” protagonist, David (Steve Laplante), in the film’s opening as he’s peppered with trivial and seemingly unrelated questions that turn out to be part of a rigorous personality test; he’s entered himself as a candidate for a simulation of the first manned mission to the Red Planet, and the people running the program won’t take any chance of accidentally admitting a cannibal on their crew. If the test tells us anything, it’s that David’s an amiable and honest sort, easygoing, compassionate, but appropriately blunt. (He also, and this can’t be stressed enough, will not eat other humans.) So far, off to a good start.
But the test fails to pick up on David’s deep-rooted dreams of one day reaching the stars himself, and as “Viking” unfolds, those dreams prove a hindrance. The program’s intent is to map out future conflicts before they happen; each member of the simulation crew is assigned to mirror the personality and behavior of one astronaut on the Mars mission to best determine how to prevent them from butting heads, or tanking the mission. Lafleur has a chuckle mismatching volunteers to astronauts, particularly “Liz” (Denis Houle) and “Steven” (Larissa Corriveau), but he works for that chuckle. Gender-bending isn’t the gag. The gag is watching “Liz” and “Steven” work their way into someone else’s head, then work their way into the role of “astronaut,” then work their way around such traits as the fragility of the male ego.
“We’ll install it wrong and that’s that,” says “Steven” to David in his role as “John” as they pantomime setting up equipment on “Mars’” surface. She’s taking the piss out of “Janet” (Fabiola N. Aladin,) their team leader, out of the mission, and out of Steven to an extent. The situation is hypothetical. For all any of them know, the real Steven would just give John the instruction manual. Lafleur layers absurdities like this throughout his screenplay, co-written with Eric K. Boulianne, using them to serve dual purposes: To make the audience laugh, for one, and to raise David’s temperature over the months and weeks he spends in the hut with “Liz,” “Steven,” “Janet,” and “Gary” (Hamza Haq), the fifth member of their team. David thinks they’re all wasting their energy on meaningless drivel. This is a mission to Mars. Don’t they have more important tasks to puzzle out?
He’s right, of course, but he’s also wrong, and worse than that he’s tragically misguided. Maybe the program heads, Jean-Marc (Martin-David Peters) and Christiane (Marie Brassard), should have set up a simulation for the simulation, too. “Viking” has a lot to say about the depths corporate enterprises like this will descend to in pursuit of success, but the film is interested chiefly in how people’s better natures unravel in confinement. Framing David’s gradual unhinging as revelatory may be more accurate; his hunger for achievement, whatever the cost, is shocking but never feels out of place. Laplante plays that emotion with the same neutral expression as he does his joy and dejection because David’s best and worst qualities come from the same source. It doesn’t take a psychology experiment to figure that out.
The program is a mess, but “Viking” is a stunner. Deadpan comedy benefits from a sharp aesthetic sense as much as empathetic writing and acting. “Viking” uses style to facilitate every essential element, from sensation to humor. Cinematographer Sara Mishara has an abiding fondness for Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey,” if her visual callbacks to that masterpiece’s color scheme aren’t a clear enough hint, but rather than merely pay homage to a classic, Mishara uses those callbacks as a joke and as a character marker: Red-soaked shots of “Steven” and David waiting in the hut before they walk on the planet’s surface, for instance, add a comical pomp to their circumstances while also reflecting David’s own delusions of grandeur. It’s Mishara’s way of getting into his head. It works. It also looks lovely.
Contrasts like these give “Viking” shape. The film revels in the absurd. When the real Liz gets knocked up in space, “Liz” dumps cereal into a bag and tapes the bag to his gut with “Gary’s” help; on noticing everyone else noticing them, they stand stock-still like deer in headlights. But the film prizes beauty highly, too. An astronaut in their space suit floats above a matte-red Mars, against the backdrop of glittering stars; David strolls outside of the hut at dusk, illuminated only by the sunset and the lights inside his helmet. Lafleur’s a born cut-up, wry and raucous. He’s humane, too, toward his characters as well as us, because it’s so rare that modern comedies are as well made as “Viking.” All Lafleur had to do was land the jokes. But his construction goes above and beyond meeting the brief’s barest essentials. Instead of merely funny, “Viking” is absolutely gorgeous. 8 years was worth it. Please don’t make us wait again. [A]