You can understand why people moan about Hollywood being creatively bankrupt when filmmakers start crossbreeding genres to create something vaguely new. But this shit is hardly endemic to modern times. Take a dash of time travel, add some westerns and you’re left with Back to the Future 3. Vampires plus Gangsters equals From Dusk Til Dawn. Taken vs. Wolves gets you The Grey. All solid films, so get off your high horse you dick. James Cameron himself sold Aliens as Marines fighting Aliens to the execs at Fox way back when, and look how good that turned out. Surely then vikings vs. aliens isn’t going to be bad, right?
Outlander starts with cool metallic titles moving into place. I love shit like this. It’s hardly just some text played over the movie. Some effort has been made. Good start. Following up from that, you gotta respect the homage to Predator and The Thing; some spaceship heading to Earth. But this ship is on fire. It’s crashing. Specifically, it’s going down into some Norwegian fjord in 709 AD.
Two dudes get out of the sinking wreckage. Both are wearing cool bio-shock style armored suits with glowing red eyes. One of the survivors seems alright, the other is not so good. A giant bloody gash clues us into his inevitable fate. This guy, who turns out was the captain of the ship, ends up in a rock-covered grave (like that’s gonna keep out the scavengers). The other, the Outlander, is Jesus Christ himself, Jim Caviezel (Escape Plan).
With his captain dead, ship fucked, and no rescue team in the system, he has no choice but to upload all Earth knowledge and language to his brain via a handy kit, sort of like the Matrix. He’s now ready to go hunting, but hunting what? Scurrying through the forest, I’m sure I hear some Predator clicking. As I watched the making of (because I’m a nerd), I know that producer Chris Roberts took a liking to this project because he was a fan of the Predator, so may be there is something in that.
Something smells fishy. But it ain’t no fish. Well, sort of. It’s a giant half-butchered whale that is stinking up the place. Outlander has found the burnt remains of a whaling village. All the houses are smashed. Bodies are mysteriously gone. Swords are bent at odd angles. We don’t know what did this, but Outlander does. He senses something in the trees and he goes out with his cool futuristic blaster gun at the ready. Surely he’ll make easy work of any beastie with this. Sadly no, as he’s easily ambushed by some viking dude, Wulfric (Jack Huston – Ben-Hur: The Remake), and his laser gun knocked into some stream never to be seen again.
He’s dragged as a prisoner to a local walled village by Wulfrick, who turns out to be the head warrior viking. But he isn’t the king. That honour is John Hurt’s (Alien) character, Rothgar. He’s busy training his daughter Freya (Sophia Myles – Underworld) in battle. He wants her to marry Wulf for some cool alliance. She’s not down with it tho as Wulf, while being a bit of a brave and dashing badass, is a total douche. It’s not totally his fault though. See his Dad, the late king Heorot, was Rothgar’s brother. He was some tyrannical warrior, who got himself killed during a foolish raid on a village lead by some dude bastard called Gunnar.
Rothgar is all about peace and alliances and so fourth, while Wulf wants bloody revenge. All his ideas are about fighting and killing. Total meathead stuff. Clearly Freya is about getting with someone a little bit more sensitive, a little bit more mysterious. A little bit more…outlanderish???
Unfortunately, it was Gunnar’s village that Outlander was stumbling around. Rothgar is concerned that Gunnar is going to think it was them who sacked it while he was out at the shops. Wulfrick doesn’t care, as he wants him dead naturally. Probably best to figure out who did do over the village first though, right?
Outlander, still a prisoner, is totally out of place with his short hair and sci-fi vest. One element of this film that I really like is the costume design. There’s lots of single arm shoulder padding, scale-mail, lots of straps. Nothing kinky, but cool looking. Even his sci-fi duds look good and suitably futuristic. It’s a shame he doesn’t get to wear his armor for longer, because that made him look like some badass space knight. Sadly, he’s quickly into viking clothes.
But anyway, after some beats from Wulfrick and Big Bjorn (James Preston Rogers – Death Warrior), he admits that he’s hunting a dragon. After using some of his sci-fi Judo, he nearly escapes, but is subdued violently. Wulf tells Freya to look after him, which is odd because he blatantly fancies her himself. During a close moment between Outlander and Freya, he knocks her out with a sly punch and gets the hell out of there. Don’t worry, feminists, she gets her revenge later.
Before Outlander can get out of the village itself, something else attacks. First it’s the sentries who each going missing one-by-one. The only clue we have is that each attack is accompanied by glowing red light. The alarm is sounded and the vikings mount the walls. The fools don’t realize whatever the fuck it is is already inside the walls and killing the hapless villagers with weird glowy tentacles. Outlander knows what the hell it is and starts stalking it through the tents and huts. Bjorn, in turn, is hunting him.
It gets Bjorn first, his axe shattering against it’s skin before he dies horribly. Outlander finally catches up to it as it moves to jump over the wall. Silhouetted, we finally see it in all it’s glory; a giant four-legged alien beast, with a long tail, claws and massive jaws (clamped down on poor Bjorn). As Outlander screams out “MOORWEN” it turns to him. It remembers him from somewhere. Snarling, it changes colour – red bio-luminescent light tattoos shine out in the dark. Then it’s gone over the wall and Outlander is left to the wrath of the other vikings.
The relationship of the Moorwen and Outlander isn’t hugely explained. Basically, as a soldier in the human space empire, it was his duty to cleanse a distant planet of all dangerous life (the moorwen) so that it could be settled and colonized. After the empire thought all the moorwen were dead, they created a little town and as payment for his fine work, Outlander got his own little plot where he moved his wife and buck-toothed little boy. Outlander heads off on another mission, confident his family are safe. Of course, one super badass moorwen survived. She is now the last. The best, the one who survived years of hunting and genocide. The one who got away. Outlander returns to find the settlement destroyed and family dead. Naturally he blames himself for it.
While transporting the bodies off-planet, somehow the moorwen go on board, attacked and caused the ship to go down. That’s one badass beastie. But does the moorwen know who Outlander is? It does show some semblance of intelligence in the film (as an alpha hunter), but never any true sentience. It’s sort of like in the Jaws movies, how the shark always seems to be tormenting the Brody family. Or is it the other way round? Are the sharks just out for revenge for all the times Brody and co. have killed it’s relatives? Technically, the moorwen killing Outlander’s family could be considered an eye-for-an-eye. I’m sure those crazies at PETA would agree.
The vikings argue what the hell it could be, as no one saw it. They know it couldn’t be Outlander, as he can’t physically rip people apart. Wulfrick thinks it’s a bear or Frankish raiders, whereas the idiot Christian missionary blames Lucifer (everyone rolled their eyes, even then). Only Outlander knows. He lays it down simple for these primitive screw-heads: it’s a killing machine, that draws it’s prey in with light and smells like death (so presumably like shit). He brought it here by accident, and it’s now carved out a territory that they’re all squatting in.
They don’t believe him but they at least agree to bring him along on the hunting party. Thankfully he’s been given some food by some wild orphan kid, like in Mad Max 2. Plus, baldy warrior Boromir (Cliff Saunders – Open Range), shares some mead with him, so he’s at least starting to make friends. Freya lands a sucker punch though before he leaves, causing everyone to laugh at him. Christ that’s embarrassing, thinks Wulfrick.
On the hunt, the vikings foolishly split up despite Outlander’s protest. Coming across some lair filled with bodies and half eaten horse heads, King Rothgar and his buddy are attacked. Hearing the screams, Wulfrick and Outlander run to their aid. Even with his hands tied together, Outlander helps slay the hairy beast. It turns out it was a bear like everyone thought. Outlander knows better.
But he’s saved the king so they welcome him as a brother and a free man. They even give him some viking clothes, because he’s clearly been freezing his tits off in his little space vest. As one of them they welcome him to the mead hall as an equal. Bald Boromir calls his name and they all cheers etc, so it’s all good. After playing some dumbass drinking games involving shields, he gains even more respect. Freya is doing that trying-not-to-look-at-him-but-actually-looking-at-him thing, and even Wulf seems to be warming to him.
During a close moment with Freya, yet more sentries start to die. Shit, this seems to be the viking equivalent to wearing a red shirt in the Star Trek universe. Dads are gonna have to tell their kids “Don’t grow up to be a sentry son, you gonna die”. But this time it isn’t the Moorwen attacking. It’s other vikings. Gunnar has returned.
Gunnar is of course Ron Perlman (Hellboy), the third actor on the Blu-ray box listed by name. He was doing the rounds in all the lower budget sci-fi films back in 2008. Stuff like Hellboy, Mutant Chronicles, Battle for Terra. It’s cool seeing him crush people here with his double hammers, and he genuinely looks the part of a badass viking dude, more so than any of the other cast. It’s a shame he’s SPOILER killed about ten minutes after we first see him.
As he describes it pointedly in the making of, “This is the best role in the film. People talk about me for the first 70 pages. Then I’m in it for 6 pages. Then they talk about me for the rest of the film”. He’s also the only one who tries to give his character a bit of an accent. True, being Scottish in Norway doesn’t make any sense, but he’s at least trying damnit. Everyone else is just Joe British. Only Caveizel’s odd accent is out of place. Like that other famous ‘lander, Christopher Lambert’s (Mortal Kombat) Highlander, his peculiar tone purely adds to the sense of alien otherness about him. Despite his lack of muscularity or badassness, he’s otherwise really well cast here.
Anyway, Outlander saves the king (again), and Gunnar leaves in defeat. As everyone feared, he blames Rothgar for the death of his family, and swears vengeance. Having retreated to the woods, he plans to attack the village again at dawn. But as the night passes it becomes clear that something else is out there. The token dude taking a piss, as ever, is the first to die. The remaining men and Gunnar flee to the town. We see those weird lights in the forest where the Moorwen is killing Gunnar’s men. Finally it comes out from the shadows and reveals it self in full. “That’s no bear” mutters Boromir. No shit, Sherlock.
Everyone now believes the Outlander. But as Gunnar says, “I hit it with all my might and didn’t even scratch it”. True, their weapons are ineffective against it. But by working together, they may be able to kill it another way. A trap.
Is it going to work though? Can Wulfrick be trusted not to kill Gunnar before the day is out? Is Freya gonna get with the Outlander? You’ll have to watch to find out.
Outlander is a bit of a hard sell. Vikings fighting space aliens is kind of unusual. But as director/writer Howard McCain puts it, many of our own ancient legends speaks of dragons and monsters. His ambition was to tell a tale similar to Beowulf, whereby we’re giving a potential explanation as to where these mythic beasts came from. He specifically had the Moorwen’s head designed in such a way that it could be something you’d find carved onto a viking long-boat.
Still, you have to question the validity of such a concept as a film. Personally, I really digged it. Caviezel himself dubs this blend of sci-fi and fantasy as Scimythica, which I think works well. There are sci-fi elements yes. The setup is sci-fi. But the predicament is very mythical; a group of people have to defend their home from some evil monster. Like in Predator, whose DNA is all over this film, it’s the old “There’s something out there […] and it ain’t no man” story.
Speaking of Predator, I’m sure it’s no coincidence either that the Moorwen’s blood is green. As a story, Outlander follows similar beats too. Act 2 is all about them trying to defeat the monster. Act 3 is all about those left alive from act 2’s failure trying to figure out a new (and even more dangerous) plan to kill it. Replacing Arnie is no easy feat (impossible in my mind) but Caviezel is an interesting choice. Like Adrien Brody in Predators, he’s not someone you’d figure for a role like this. Apparently, Karl Urban (Dredd) was originally in talks to be the Outlander, and I can totally see that. However, Caviezel pulls it off. He doesn’t phone it in at all, despite the low budget or the concept. Respect is due.
The other main casting is strong. Perlman, despite being in for mere minutes, is wonderful, John Hurt just John Hurts his way through this with ease, and Sophia Myles as Freya plays it very dynamically. She’s a strong female character who you can believe isn’t a totally hapless princess. My only beef would be with Jack Huston as Wulfrick. He’s likable as a guy, and has the facial look. But he appears a bit scrawny, and his voice occasionally slips into full on cockney from time-to-time.
Still, his character is perhaps the most interesting of the bunch. Wulf is a good guy but he’s never been challenged. He’s used to being the alpha male. So with another 800 pound gorilla stomping about in the form of Outlander, it starts to bring out the best qualities in him. Their relationship goes from enemy to warriors-in-arms to friends. The mistake could have been made to make him rail against Outlander at every turn, which we’ve all seen a million times in other films. Instead, their relationship is one of the true highlights of the film. Moments like where he throws Outlander a spear and nods at him; shit like this makes us believe they’re both cool. His final passing of the torch scene shows how much he’s grown as a man, and I applaud McCain for not just making him some idiotic jarhead who hates Outlander because he’s everything Wulfrick isn’t. In all honesty, of all the characters he changes the most.
As a piece of design work, the Moorwen is sadly not as characterful as the Predator, nor as distinctively alien as the xenomorph in Alien. It’s only real stand-out feature is the bio-luminescence, which adds a little bit of colour to an otherwise fairly muted palette. It isn’t totally washed out like a lot of modern action films, but the limited colours are contrasted nicely by the blues and reds from the creature. There is a really cool moment where he throws the torch into the darkness and it lands in front of the creature. Yes it’s CGI but the concept is strong.
The sets are all pretty decent, along with the costume work. I specifically liked the design for the swords that get made out of the remnants of Outlander’s ship. It’s a slick blend of sci-fi and viking artistry that works well. It’s a shame they aren’t featured more. In fact, going through the Blu-ray, there are tons of deleted scenes. An alternative opening, the attack on Gunnar’s village, minor character moments and so on. While the current cut works perfectly as a lean 90 minute ride, a directors cut would certainly add a lot more meat to the film.
At present, it doesn’t have the time to linger on anyone other than the main characters. Plus, by setting such a high pace, it struggles to build a lot of tension and atmosphere in many of the scenes. Still, moments like sacked whaling village, Outlander stalking the moorwen through the huts etc, really work well. Some little moments have survived, including the minor friendship between Outlander and Boromir, his sad death scene, and a hilarious moment where the Moorwen kills the Christian priest.
The music could be considered a little uninspired too. It’s a very generic fantasy affair by composer Geoff Zanelli (Scorpion King 4), and I feel should have been spiced up with a little more sci-fi at points. Something like Dune, maybe? Still, it’s not so terrible you ever take notice of it in a negative way. It’s just sort of there, for better or worse, like a beige volvo.
Look, this is a B-movie. Yes, it’s made in the 21st century with computer generated effects, but it’s still a B-movie nonetheless. Some people get precious when you call a film a B-movie. To not offend the delicate sensibilities of those pricks, I suppose an alternative way of saying it is that Outlander is a low budget movie with a pretty one note story. And there is nothing wrong with that. You can’t get too high and mighty with a film that pits vikings against space aliens. But you also can’t ever forget that some B-movies are good. Some are even great.
Outlander, for me, stands somewhere in the middle. I enjoyed the hell out of it. Sure I wasn’t blown away, but I liked it. And there is nothing wrong with simply liking something. It’s a solid mix of genres with decent enough action, performances and effects. It won’t crush any award ceremony. But I guarantee you that some kid somewhere will grow up loving the shit out of this movie, just like I loved Beastmaster or Robot Jox or dozens of other silly B-movies back when I watched them in the 80s. We need films like this. Not endless fucking sequels or super hero movies. You gotta applaud the balls of anyone who will go to people with millions of dollars and say “I want to make a film about aliens fighting barbarians” and actually get the damned thing made to the quality that Outlander does. For that reason alone you have to get it watched.