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Outlander – film review

December 5, 2013

OUTLANDER

Vikings vs aliens!

outlander - moorwen monster

Directed by Howard McCain. Written by Dirk Blackman and Howard McCain. Starring: James Caviezel, Sophia Myles, Jack Huston, Ron Perlman and John Hurt. Year of release: 2008. Running time: 115 mins.

A lone warrior from outer space crashes to Earth and must gain the trust of a Viking village in 8th Century Norway in order to defeat a viscious alien stowaway hellbent on killing every man, woman and child and razing the village to the ground.

I have to be honest here – fifteen minutes in, and I turned this movie off. From the opening moments showing a crippled spacecraft hurtling out of control towards Earth (in a brazen callback to John Carpenter’s The Thing) to the wooden performance     by Jim Caviezel to the clunky dialogue John Hurt is forced to deal with (and you     know you’re in trouble when even John Hurt can’t make dialogue sing) – this film completely failed to make enough of an impression for me to continue any further. Then some friends urged me to give it another go – assuring me it gets better. So I persevered and it still didn’t improve all that much – until the halfway mark, when suddenly, it seemed, the film had finally found its groove.

Apparently inspired by the Nordic myth of Beowulf; this movie more resembles Vincent Ward’s original scenario for Alien 3 – in that a predatory alien creature is feared to be the embodiment of evil by a superstitious and primative culture; leery     of a stranger in possession of the knowledge and prior experience needed to defeat it. In the case of Alien 3; it was an enclave of luddite monks – whereas here it is the people of a remote Viking village who face-off against ‘the dragon’.

outlander - caviezel and huston

James Caviezel (The Passion Of The Christ) is fairly humorless and dull as space warrior Kainan – kinda’ like a younger, less charismatic Jurgen Prochnow – I kept thinking Christopher Lambert should’ve been cast instead (as it tuns out, Karl Urban was originally sought for the role – which would have been a major improvement). A big part of the problem – as far as the blandness of Caviezel’s character is concerned – is the fact that a computer upload (delivered through the retina of his eye – directly into his brain) has given him complete knowledge of every facet of human society and life on Earth in general. This has the unfortunate effect of short-circuiting any fun to be had from the idea of him being unfamiliar with everyday things he encounters. Sure, it could be argued, this ‘fish-out-of-water’ idea may well be a cliche in itself – but it would have been a helluva lot more interesting than what we end up with here – a hero so bland as to be virtually nonexistent. And it also could have provided many opportunities for moments of levity – which would further endear him to the viewer. Sophia Myles doesn’t fare much better as love interest Freya. Sure, she initially makes for a plucky heroine – portrayed as someone who can clearly hold her own in   a fight. However, gutsy Freya is soon sadly reduced to nothing more than a mere damsel in distress – someone to be rescued when the monster abducts her and takes her back to its lair. As great as John Hurt is as an actor, he seems terribly miscast here as the Nordic Viking chief Hrothgar.

While the first half of the film is fairly plodding and uninspired – things do thankfully pick up in the second half, once the monster (dubbed a Moorwen) is given more to do. There is interesting creature design for the beast by veteren monster designer Patrick Tatopoulos (Pitch Black, I Am Legend) – combining the sleek litheness and agility of a jaguar with the bioluminescence of deep sea creatures (resembling at times the Monster from the Id from Fordidden Planet) and an occasionally satanic appearance.

moorwen alien - outlander

The Moorwen revealed.

Refreshingly, the flashback sequence where Kainan’s brethren invade the Moorwen’s planetary homeworld and commit mass genocide does much to create sympathy for the lone creature – the last of its kind, and helps us to understand its motivation for revenge. It is this memorable sequence specifically which elevates the film well above its initial B picture leanings in the second half. Sympathy for the Moorwen comes to the fore when it mournfully nudges its slain offspring – in a scene reminiscent of a moment where the dragon does the same in Dragonslayer from     1981. The CG effects are the usual standard we’ve come to expect from mid-range budgeted genre fare; peppered with moments of startling originality – particularly when the Moorwen appears to the priest as a satanic presence. Production values are fairly respectable, considering the budget and the look and feel of the village is convincing; with the Canadian wilderness an effective substitute for the wilds of 8th Century Norway.

Things also pick up in the second half with the welcome arrival of Ron Perlman (sporting a fairly convincing English accent) as Gunnar – the head of an opposing clan who mistakenly blames the destruction of his village on his arch nemesis: Hrothgar (Hurt). Setting aside their differences, the two join forces and under the leadership of Kainan; formulate a plan to trap and kill the Moorwen – a short-lived offensive which ends in fiery death and decapitation. And it is here the film really shifts into higher gear as it is left to Kainan and Gunnar’s estranged son Wulfric     (Jack Huston) to track the beast to its lair for the final, protracted confrontation. Thankfully these well-staged set-pieces involving the Moorwen leading up to the finale are engaging enough, so it is easy to forgive the plodding nature and niggling plot contrivences of the first half – ultimately providing a good enough reason to give this movie a go.

But having said this; a good fifteen minutes could have been cut from this movie without affecting the overall plot. One such silly and seemingly superfluous scene involves Huston challenging Caviezel to ‘a game of shields’ – where the two have to step from shield to shield; held above the heads of the other vikings until one of them stumbles and falls. A good five minutes of screen-time is devoted to this admitedly elaborately-staged sequence. And to be fair; there is an attempt later on to justify its inclusion during the setting of a trap designed to destroy the beast – but it turns out to be a fairly hokey and weak attempt to give credence to what is ultimately a silly and pointless scene.

And then there’s the issue of the gun. Part of Kainan’s survival pack (which he retrieves from the lake after his spacecraft has sunk) contains a formidable bazooka-style weapon – perfect for killing the beast later on – only he loses it when he’s ambushed and captured by Wulfric and his men (it flies out from his hand, landing in a creek). That part is fine – as we can’t have him just simply blow the monster away in the first twenty minutes. But he could at least have made an attempt to recover the weapon once he realizes the Moorwen is at large – even if he fails to locate it – or alternatively; finding it and then losing it in an initial battle with the beast. The fact that he doesn’t even make an effort to recover the weapon is a pretty lame plot contrivance; which exists only to allow him to fashion a dragon-slaying sword for his climactic confrontation with the Moorwen (fashioned, I might add, from the impervious metal hull of his sunken spaceship). Screenwriting 101: if you introduce a gun in the first act – make damn sure someone gets to use it later on; even if they are unsuccessful in taking out the bad guy/monster.

moorwen-and-priest

Niggling plot issues aside: with substantial tightening of the first half, a more charismatic and convincing lead and more Ron Perlman – this could easily have     been a great deal of fun. As it stands though; Outlander still has merit – thanks to an engaging second half; some arresting imagery and a string of impressively staged set-pieces involving the monster.

3 stars out of 5

Star ratings: 1 – poor / 2 – below average / 3 – good / 4  – excellent / 5 – unmissable

Greg Moss is a film school graduate with a background in directing music videos     and is currently seeking representation as a screenwriter. He likes creative people, feeding the cat and watching genre movies. Greg can also be heard on the Blu-ray commentary for the 1980 sci-fi thriller Saturn 3, out now from Scream Factory.

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