Running time: 115 minutes
Written by: Dirk Blackman & Howard McCain
Directed by: Howard McCain
Starring: James Caviezel, Jack Huston, Sophia Myles, John Hurt, Ron Perlman
Aliens vs. Vikings. That series of words will likely cause one of two reactions. Either you roll your eyes and hit the back button or part of you cheers inside, hoping against hope that it’s not going to be another Sy-Fy Channel “original.” No worries here, as Howard McCain’s Outlander is the real deal; a hot-blooded fantasy throwback that packs in the cheeseball thrills.
The film opens with a starship hurtling through the vastness of space and smashing into a fjord in Norway. The year, as a helpful title card tells us, is 709 A.D. After a spectacular crash sequence where a bewildered shepherd watches the heavens vomit forth plumes of fire, the film introduces the apparent lone survivor of the crash. His name is Kainan (yes, pronounced like the biblical one) and he’s surprisingly humanoid. So much in fact, that he’s played by James Caviezel (Passion of the Christ) wearing threads only a little less flashy than a Star Fleet uniform.
The next morning he finds the body of his fellow comrade torn to shreds. After interfacing with the ship’s translation device in order to upgrade to the local language, Kainan grabs his blaster and heads off into the dark wilderness. He’s tracking something but stumbles across an empty, ravaged village and is captured by Viking riders from another clan who assume he’s been involved in the sacking of it. The warriors bring him back to their village, the fortified Hereot, and their king, Rothgar. Kainan reveals that the force responsible for the deaths was a stowaway on his ship. A creature he initially identifies as a dragon, and then later calls a Morwen. And just like that, we have the film’s big idea: Vikings hunting an alien monster.
Caviezel seems an odd choice for this role initially, and he plays his part relatively subdued for the early chapters. As Kainan prepares for battle with the Morwen and warms to the world around him, Caviezel brings a necessary humanity to the more ridiculous elements of the story. This man has scars that run beyond the physical, and he’s hiding more than just his knowledge of the Morwen. Caviezel manages to convey most of this through his eyes and body language. Its an interesting move for a film where every other actor has their heroic machismo factor set to 11.
Within the walls of Hereot, we are introduced to the Vikings and their leaders, Wulfric and Rothgar. Jack Huston is Wulfric and he’s playing the kind of character one expects to see Karl Urban or Orlando Bloom haunting. The benefit for Huston is that within the confines of his role he can play up his charm and his energy without needing to carry the film as its primary hero, and that’s exactly what he does. He is in line to become king in the footsteps of his father, but Rothgar is reluctant to usher him into this.
John Hurt plays the old king, and again the casting pays off. Hurt’s Rothgar is the moral soul of this community. From his throne, a mighty tree grows that overtakes the roof of Shield Hall, and Hurt reflects this visual motif in the character. From his interactions with his unwed daughter Freya, to his conversations with Wulfric, down to the way he handles a violent exchange with the leader of a rival clan, Rothgar proves to be the binding root of his kingdom and his people. Sophia Myles as Freya is obviously being groomed by the script as a romantic interest for Kainan, but she plays fierce independence well enough to hold her own amongst an entire hall of macho warriors.
As for those warriors, there is care taken to create a unity among them. The mead and blood flow freely, but Outlander isn’t about giving us a group of sweaty, misogynistic barbarians. The emphasis is on an almost familial brotherhood that proves to be both a strong foundation in their battle with the Morwen and an endearing vision for the lonely, broken Kainan. Colorful characters abound, and the script is generous enough to make even the drunken sidekick a heartening source of comic relief and not just a wayward buffoon. And the leader of that rival clan? It’s none other than Ron Perlman as the biggest, burliest dual hammer-wielding Viking you have ever seen. Perlman’s Gunnar isn’t in the movie long, but he makes an impression during his stay.
There’s one final member of the cast that is absolutely essential to making the film work as it needs to. The Morwen. At first, we only hear of it or see flashes of red, ominous thunder in the surrounding woods. Not long though, before it shows up in all of its monstrous glory. The creature design here is really top-notch and the creators have taken care to make the Morwen both a true alien and something more familiar in a mythological sense. Although I would have appreciated less cgi and a few more practical effects, the artists have taken care to make the Morwen a plausible adversary. My favorite feature is probably the beastie’s glowing organic armor, making it eerily reminiscent of the Id monsters from Forbidden Planet.
The production design deserves special recognition. The shield hall with the aforementioned tree growing out of it, the sunken star ship at the bottom of a lake and the labyrinthine tunnels where the film’s final hunt takes place are all amazing. My favorite scene of the film involves Kainan explaining to Freya what really happened between his people and the Morwens. As he describes in terms she can understand, we see through his eyes the events on the Morwen home-world. It’s here that the science fiction pedigree takes over and shines, and it’s also the point where the film grounds the Beowulf story in a poignancy it didn’t previously have in other versions.
If you missed this one in theaters, as most did, it’s been available on DVD since last summer. So start planning those beer/ pizza shindigs and Viking costume parties. If you are looking for high drama or important themes, abandon ship. But if you want a rollicking adventure that captures a different era (not ancient Norway, but 1985), look no further. The lost world of pulp fantasy lives again in Outlander.