So today was the last day of Queen Elizabeth’s weekend-long Diamond Jubilee celebrations here in the UK, of which I saw not one minute. The sacrifices I make for you lot, eh?
Vikings and Jesus versus aliens.
A soldier from a distant planet crash-lands on Earth – in Norway to be exact – in the year 709AD. Stowed away on his ship is a creature called a Moorwen. This soldier, named Kainan, is captured by a local Viking village after they find a neighbouring settlement completely destroyed. Kainan struggles to convince them of the Moorwen’s existence, before it comes to destroy their village as well. Decapitations ensue.
When it comes to the idea of the high concept, does it get any better than that? Originally intended as an adaptation of Beowulf (without the aliens), the first script for Outlander was written by director Howard McCain back in 1992, but didn’t take its final shape until co-writer Dirk Blackman came aboard the project six years later, though it didn’t see a camera until another eight years after that. By this point Beowulf was the interstellar warrior Kainan, played by the once and future Christ Jim Caviezel, and Grendel was now the Moorwen, a creature native to a planet that had been colonised by Kainan’s people. King Hrothgar is still King Hrothgar and Heorot is still Heorot, and Heorot mead is still the best in the world, according to Boromir at least.
This film had a budget over 100 times bigger than yesterday’s Hunter Prey, but despite that – and having production design out the wazoo – it is still well and truly a B-movie in spirit and execution. For whatever flaws it may have (and I’ll come to those later) the movie looks great. McCain and his crew took full advantage of the Nova Scotia and Newfoundland locations, even taking a leaf out the Peter Jackson playbook by building Hrothgar’s village from scratch. In fairness though, this decision was undoubtedly supported by producer Barrie Osborne, himself a veteran of PJ’s adventures in Middle Earth.
So how does Kainan look just like the Vikings, or speak the same language, or why does he not just blow up the Moorwen with his magic space gun, I hear you ask (you probably weren’t asking, but I’m going to pretend you were anyway). Well, since you asked, the film gets around these quite handily within the first five minutes. Firstly, his ship crashes in a lake, making salvage of his weapons somewhat difficult. He does have a magic space pistol, but he drops it in a waterful. Secondly, right before his computer/beacon/thing conveniently uploads Norse into his head, its display tells him where he is, and adds three little words: abandoned seed colony. So, Kainan doesn’t look like the Vikings; they look like him. It’s all quite neatly done, to be honest, although it must have been just for shits and giggles when someone decided that Caviezel’s supposed “native” language that he speaks briefly before the upload would in fact be Old Norse, while the Vikings all speak English through movie-world’s Universal Translator. By the way, there is a prize (subject to availability*) for the first person to tell me in the comments what Kainan’s first word in English is. The movie never makes any kind of big deal about this revelation. It doesn’t turn into some random subplot revelation or anything; it’s just there if you want to spot it. I have to say, I appreciate that restraint on the filmmakers’ part. They just answer the question and move on.
Let’s talk about the Moorwen for a second. That thing is just gorgeous. As designed and brought to life by Patrick Tatopolous (Independence Day) and his team, it isn’t just some mindless monster; it’s an animal with a backstory and motivations. It doesn’t just attack for the sake of something to do. It is actually seeking retribution for the near-destruction of its species. Its mood – which ranges from angry, through very angry, to volcanically pissed off – is demonstrated with a variable bio-luminescence through its whole body. When about to attack, it glows bright red like it is almost made of fire itself. Also, for a medium budget, effects-heavy picture in 2007, the integration of the creature into the scenes is mostly very well done. There isn’t that ‘weightless’ effect that can still plague CG creations today. Just watch any SyFy movie of the week if you don’t know what I mean.
As far as the Moorwen’s human co-stars are concerned, it’s mostly a fairly generic bunch of redshirts and warriors. Aside from John Hurt and his magnificent beard as Hrothgar and Sophia Myles as his daughter Freya, there are only really two of the Vikings that get any kind of character and that’s Jack Huston as Wulfric, Hrothgar’s nephew and heir-apparent, and Boromir the boozy comic relief smithy, played with relish by Cliff Saunders. Ron Perlman brings his typical Ron Perlman-ness to the proceedings as Gunnar, king of the neighbouring village, but he isn’t around long enough to really let his Ron Perlman-osity fly free. Hurt can do this sort of thing in his sleep but to his credit he never does. Maybe they told him he was actually in Beowulf. My Viking history has got a couple of gaps in it, but what was the prevailing wisdom when it came to women taking up arms? Would it be unusual for the somewhat petite Miss Myles to be quite the sword-swinger she portrays here? Honestly, I have no idea, but she’s a talented enough actress to sell it. And then there’s Caviezel himself. Apparently cast as much for his “soulful eyes” as anything else, he does manage to bring some gravitas to the role of the mysterious stranger. For him, the pursuit of the Moorwen is a hugely personal thing and he shows both the family man side and the badass soldier side of Kainan well enough.
Wait, I said there were flaws, didn’t I? Okay. Don’t come into this expecting genuine Norwegian accents, for one thing. All the Vikings have either English or interchangeable Scots/Irish brogues, while Caviezel uses his natural American accent. While this does set him apart from the others, the script has to include the word “Viking” every three scenes to remind us where we are. Despite the servicable-to-good performances, a bit more development of the other characters wouldn’t have gone amiss. When the Moorwen attacks the village, it’s hard to be upset by the losses since we don’t even know the folk that got gutted. And while we’re talking character development, the film pretty much states outright that Freya is betrothed to Wulfric, yet when Kainan is taken in by the village and he and Freya start getting closer, this is completely forgotten about. Did Wulfric even know Freya was to be his wife or was that just something Hrothgar and his daughter chatted about in private? Also the script is fairly pedestrian; both in the story itself and the dialogue. You’d think that after 15 years it could have had a bit more of a polish. There are really no surprises as the plot progresses from A to B to C. The geography is a bit squiffy at times as well. For example, at one point our Fearless Moorwen Killers go down the village well and break through to a series of volcanic caves – I’m not kidding, there’s lava and everything – which then have an opening above a 500ft high waterfall. Yeah, that makes perfect sense.
Overall though, Outlander is a good, fun action flick with a rather impressive bloodshed quotient that deserved to do better than it did on release. It’s a bit of a throwback to the dark-agey monster flicks that the eighties used to spit out every once in a while, but in a good way. I liked it.
*Which is Old Norse for “Just kidding, there’s no prize”.