A Sci-Fi Fairy Tale: Hanna

Published on May 30th, 2011 in: Action Movies, Climb Onto The Nearest Star, Current Faves, Feminism, Issues, Movie Reviews, Movies, Reviews, Science Fiction |

By Lisa Anderson

One of the best movies of the year has already arrived, without much fanfare. If you’ve gone to see a movie rated PG-13 or higher in the past few months, then you’ve seen the trailer for Hanna, where the thrumming score by the Chemical Brothers provides the background for a teenage girl’s acts of derring-do. What you can’t tell from the trailer is that Hanna is one of the most innovative science fiction movies to come along in a while.

As evident from the trailer, Hanna is about a girl (The Lovely Bones‘ Saoirse Ronan) raised in isolation near the Arctic Circle by her father, former CIA operative Erik Heller (Eric Bana). He trains her as a fighter and a survivalist, warning her that she has a powerful enemy in his former handler, Marissa Wiegler (Cate Blanchett).

hanna movie

The day finally comes when Hanna feels ready to put her training into action, and she broadcasts the signal that will bring the forces arrayed against her into her quiet forest. The ensuing adventure brings her face-to-face with the monster of her father’s bedtime stories, but also leads her to make new friends and explore a world she’d previously known only through books. As she seeks to rendezvous with her father in Berlin, she also uncovers an uncomfortable truth about herself.

I hadn’t initially planned to see this movie, as the trailer is quite violent, and I have a squick about children (or things that look like them) doing horrible things. I ended up seeing it on a whim with a friend, however, and was glad I did.

For one thing, I’d somehow gotten the wrong idea about the movie’s premise from the trailer. I thought that Cate Blanchett would play the main character, and that Erik Bana’s secret agent would have turned his daughter against her for his own personal reasons. As it turns out, Hanna is the center of the narrative, and everything that her father tells her about Marissa is true. This makes even the more extreme things that Hanna has to do seem necessary. Just as importantly, the film isn’t as graphic as you would expect from the trailer. The violence frequently happens off screen, and there’s relatively little gore.

I was also surprised and impressed by the richness of the text. Before seeing it, I’d seen a post by a friend on LiveJournal that Hanna was the “best fairy tale ever!” Sure enough, it does rely on fairy tale structures and imagery.

In her forest—a fairy-tale setting in itself—Hanna is exposed to folk culture rather than popular culture, reading from Grimm’s Fairy Tales at night. Marissa plays the role of both Wicked Queen and Big Bad Wolf, while Hanna’s deceased mother is the Good Queen, the Absent Queen. Hanna even dresses as a princess at one point in her journey. Archetypally-loaded creatures such as wolves and deer make appearances, and a decrepit amusement park provides a fairytale setting to bookend the film. In a lot of ways, as a female-centered meditation on folk tales, Hanna is what Red Riding Hood promised, but didn’t deliver

It may be surprising, then, to learn that this is also a science fiction movie, though it hasn’t been marketed as such. Hanna learns that she is the product of a program to genetically alter developing fetuses so that they will grow into super-soldiers, who are faster, stronger, and less empathetic than other people. This explains certain things she is able to do, such as beating adult men in hand-to-hand combat and hanging onto the bottom of a truck to keep from being run over. There aren’t any traditional science-fiction special effects, though: No aliens, no other planets, and no technology that doesn’t exist. Hanna is a science fiction movie thanks to pages of blood test results reading “abnormal” and some carefully executed stunts.

The film is well made on a number of levels. Action sequences are balanced with moments of warmth and levity, particularly with the help of a British family who takes Hanna in. (As a Dollhouse fan, it was great to see Olivia Williams again, and Jessica Barden’s worldly Sophie provides a wonderful foil for our unsophisticated heroine.) The principal performances are all amazing: Cate Blanchett is terrifying as Marissa, and Eric Bana makes Heller’s love for his daughter obvious and believable. (He positively pouts when he gets sent away so that Hanna can begin her adventure. It’s cute.) The Chemical Brothers provide an engaging, varied score that is a must-have for anyone interested in science-fiction movie music. My only frustration was not getting to know what happened after the curtain fell. Even then, however, the movie has a sense of symmetry.

After seeing Hanna twice, I learned that Saoirse Ronan has been cast as the lead in the film adaptation of The Host, by Stephenie Meyers. I was thrilled to hear this! She seems perfect for the role, and I can’t wait to see what she does with it. We now know she can carry a sci-fi/action film, and if The Host is anywhere near as good as Hanna, it’ll be worth seeing.

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