Sometimes crazy ideas gets pitched to movie studios, and in the cold light of day the plot of Outlander is one of those. But it curiously seems to work on a number of levels in spite of this.
This film was originally shown at Cannes, and nearly a year later will appear in UK, after opening in the US this coming weekend. The rest of Europe has already seen it, so The Weinstein Company who made it clearly got cold feet about giving it a proper launch for whatever reasons.
That’s actually a little surprising because compared with some other schlock sci-fi movies that have been made recently, (The Mutant Chronicles being a prime example) this one is actually quite good in places.
That said, Outlander never quite evolves beyond its action DNA, but it’s entertaining enough and worth at least a viewing on DVD for anyone who likes science fiction or Vikings.
Beware from this point onwards the spoiler brake is now off!
It starts like a dozen other movies with a spacecraft entering the Earth’s atmosphere and crashing into a lake. The location is Norway, the year is 709AD. The obvious question about how this is possible gets answered quickly. Happily, the answer is that it’s not a time travel movie.
Two human occupants of the craft make it ashore, and by morning only one survives, Kainan, played by the acceptably buff James Caviezel. He unpacks a computer and identifies the planet he’s on, which is recognised as ‘an abandoned seed colony’. Clearly humans arrived on Earth from elsewhere, a long time before. Once it’s identified the location, the computer then blit-verts him with the ability to speak Old Norse using an optical probe, which is not only very useful but quite painful for those that undergo this type of transfer.
He activates the homing beacon, and scans the horizon for possible threats. It’s not Vikings he’s worried about at that point, but a powerful creature he had onboard, now loose in the local area. This is the set-up, and pretty soon he runs into the Vikings and the story gets going proper.
When we get to meet the Vikings I was pleasantly surprised that they’re not too Hollywood in appearance or style. From what I saw, nobody is wearing a hat with horns, and the buildings and clothing seemed plausible to a none-historian. I’m sure an expert in Viking history could tear it to pieces. My only concerns were the abundance of chain-mail in some scenes, and a discussion about being stabbed with a fork, as I was under the impression that the fork didn’t arrive in Northern Europe until the 16th century. But this isn’t a historical drama, so I don’t really have a big problem with the Vikings and how they’re portrayed.
Leader of the Nordic hard-men is King Rothgar, played quite physically by John Hurt, of all people. Of his recent work this is probably the most screen time Hurt has had in quite some time, and he looks like he’s enjoying himself intensely. His feisty daughter, Freya is Sophia Myles, who most UK audiences will remember from the excellent Doctor Who episode The Girl In The Fireplace. She’s a decent actress, even if US audiences wouldn’t know her from Adam. We’re also introduced to Rothgar’s anointed replacement, Wulfric (Jack Huston), and a few other recognisable characters, later mostly to be alien fodder.
When they meet Kainan he’s near a destroyed lakeside settlement that the alien ‘Moorwen’ has trashed, and they assume he’s the culprit. It takes a while for him to convince them he’s not the killer, and establish a bond with the Vikings, which is a good opportunity to introduce the characters and various allegiances.
Unfortunately, Gunnar (a bald Ron Perlman), the king of the destroyed settlement, thinks it’s Rothgar’s people that killed his people and turns up to get revenge. A battle ensues where Vikings get to run around and massacre each other in quite gory fashion. But then it wouldn’t be a Viking movie if they didn’t, would it?
For a good portion of the movie the creature isn’t a factor, until the last third when it unleashes death and destruction on first Rothgar’s Vikings, then Gunnars’, and then both for good measure. At first you only catch glimpses and reactions to the beast, but eventually you get to see it complete, and as CGI aliens go, it’s quite an elegant predator. I especially liked the bio-luminance aspect, which is very effective in making the beast seem supernatural to the Vikings.
Having given us plenty of information at the start, the movie then stops almost in the middle to fill in the blanks that are forming in your mind about what the Moorwen is and where it came from, and also to create more of a back story for Kainan.
The humans that Kainan came from decided to take control of a planet where the Moorwen lived, and attempted to eradicate it before settling. They assume they’ve done this, but they didn’t really research the creature fully enough to find out how it reproduced, which is, sadly for them, by asexual means. They presumably missed one, which then spawns others that then kill Kainan’s wife and son, and sneak onboard his ship. They’re clearly intelligent, but how smart they are isn’t fully revealed.
In this explanation there is a sense of guilt from Kainan about what happened to the creature which sort of fits with the Viking’s view of living in harmony with nature, but it’s not anything that’s actually explored in any meaningful way other than the rather obvious parallels that it draws with the Beowulf saga.
Thankfully, Outlander avoids the temptation to make fun of the Vikings because they don’t have high technology, and at only one point does Kainan’s technology play any part in the proceedings. He determines they’ll need better weapons to kill the Moorwen , and so swims down to his wrecked ship to find some alloys which they can then forge to make better ones. These high-tech axes and swords are quite cool, and don’t seem as remotely stupid as this could have so easily become. He doesn’t have lasers or anything that makes the Vikings think he’s anything special, which was a relief.
Eventually all arguments are settled and they try to ensnare the Moorwen, unaware that it’s multiplied and they’re attacked from numerous directions. Two Moorwen now kill many of them, including both Kings. Quite why Ron Pearlman signed up for this, I’m not sure; he gets two speaking scenes before being decapitated.
There is then a ‘bug hunt’ when they find the Moorwen’s lair and get Norse on their alien asses. There are a number of subtle but obvious references to other movies in here, which geeks might appreciate. The crash at the start is very like the opening of Planet of the Apes, there are various nods to Dragon Slayer, Predator and a host of Viking movies as well as the Beowulf legend.
The somewhat predictable ending is that Kainan destroys the homing beacon and decides to remain as king of the Viking tribe rather than return to being a spaceman, which, given that Freya survives to be queen, seems something of an overly happy ending for my liking. But as action movies go this isn’t anything more or less than it says on the tin, and decidedly better than many much more feeble sci-fi attempts.
I’d wished it had some more memorable scenes, and perhaps a couple of plot twists towards the end, but it’s not a painful experience to watch. But given how reticent the makers and distributors seem to be about actually getting this production into the cinema, I’m not convinced we’ll see a sequel.
29 January 2009