Viking films are something that American cinema has struggled to crack. Exactly why is an interesting question, because the set-up seems golden – big, hairy Scandinavian guys smashing seven bells out of each other and some of the most interesting of all cultural mythologies to mine from.
But the reality remains that most Hollywood Viking films are pretty execrable (Eric The Viking excluded). Marvel’s Thor adaptation could be the first Norse blockbuster to really deliver, but until then we have to put up with decidedly second-rate fare like Pathfinder and the DVD release of Outlander.
A space traveller from an advanced human race cash lands in 8th century Norway, complete with an alien super-predator stashed in the cargo bay. Obviously, said beastie escapes and starts carving out a territory in the locality, munching on the villagers and warring tribes unlucky enough to be get in its way.
The ‘outlander’, Jim Caviezel – found wandering through the snow-shrouded Norwegian woods – is soon captured by the scouts of King Rothgar (John Hurt) and charged with being the cause of all this recent kerfuffle. But eventually he proves himself to the court and leads the charge on the dragon-esque monster, called a Moorwen, winning the hand of the maiden fair along the way, etc…
Parallels with the Beowulf legend aren’t too hard to spot, and the film’s healthy dose of retrofit 80s schlock could have turned it into a tongue-in-cheek nod to lowbrow B-movie mini classics like Critters.
However, Outlander takes itself far too seriously. What could have been a perfect boys-‘n’-brews romp for a Friday night falls into the trap of trying to be worthy and inventive, instead becoming muddled. This makes the shoddy storytelling and ropey CGI just that much harder to stomach.
Action films that try and veer from genre staples play a dangerous game. When it works it can pay off handsomely, offering an edge of originality that cuts through the dross. Done badly, a film just comes across as confusingly-scripted and poorly made, in doubt of its own identity. Outlander unfortunately falls into the latter category.
Caviezel, whose career has gone into nosedive since The Passion Of The Christ, should take a fair share of the blame for this. His heroic alien is a bland, winsome, ‘looking into the distance with a troubled expression’ martyr rather than a balls-deep action man, while the usually stoic Hurt wears the pained expression of an old school thesp whose agent has somehow blagged him into an easy pay-check throughout most of his scenes.
The last big name actor onboard, Ron Perlman (who plays Rothgar’s rival chief, Gunnar), is underused and of little importance to the overall story, sadly.
It’s not all bad. There are some intense battle scenes where the bones crunch, limbs fly and blood splatters with gory enthusiasm. The Moorwen is a pretty cool monster, while the overall premise and murky back-story – never fully explored – offers enough intriguing questions to keep interest simmering.
But just as Outlander starts to win you over, the film’s thematic inadequacies slap you in the face. There’s a sense of missed opportunity to Outlander that just wont shift, with its collective whole lesser than the sum of its parts. While dumb action movies always need a healthy pinch of salt to make them palatable, this only works when the self-referencing of the genre’s clichés are worn so brazenly that it makes griping about bad acting and predictable plots rather pedantic. They’re meant to be cheesy, that’s kind of the point.
In the end, what Outlander lacks most is a sense of humour, and it has nowhere near the skill and craftsmanship necessary to pull off irony-free action. The wait goes on for a first-class Viking film.
Extras Extras on the disc aren’t too bad, with an interesting Making Of, some deleted scenes, extracts from an animated storyboard and a collection of before and after CG composite shots. All of which let you into the smoke and mirrors world of VFX-heavy movies and gives a snapshot of the huge levels of work that goes into productions like these. However, most of this is fairly standard Bonus Disc stuff – no real great shakes.
Outlander is out now.