I've been attempting to get a look at a science fiction film that arrived out of left field for awhile now. I've had it in my Blu-Ray player for so long it was beginning to feel like part of the player. Growing tired and running out of free time in the evening has its ramifications. Outlander  finally arrived on Blu-Ray this year. It quietly came and went*. That's rarely a good sign, but not necessarily an accurate predictor of the film's value on any number of fronts [direction, acting, story, special effects and overall production value]. The question is, where does Outlander fall? Was the disappearance from limited release fair?
There were a number of factors that immediately drew me to the film. It's science fiction certainly. Hello...McFly!? [Knocking on head] Right. I'm pretty much a sucker for science fiction. I think that's safe to say. I prefer the quality stuff, of course, but I'll take a risk now and again. Outlander qualified as a risk in my book. Still, with sleeve comments like "Beowulf Meets Predator" from the Boston Herald how could I go wrong? Right? Well, sleeve praise isn't exactly safe either. There are plenty of places to go wrong.
I'm a huge fan of the Old English poem Beowulf. I've read the classic many times and I'm a big fan of Grendel and Ma Grendel, Dragon, Beowulf and Wiglaf. So, any element of Beowulf mixed with science fiction certainly grabs my attention. Mind you, straight up interpretations of Beowulf always worry me too. I can't adequately or accurately reflect on the Robert Zemeckis film, Beowulf  featuring the voices of Ray Winstone [whom I love] and Angelina Jolie [not so much]. That film intrigued me, but I never pulled the trigger on it. I've never been a fan of writer Neil Gaiman enough to say that I needed to see it. There's also Beowulf & Grendel  [costumes were even reused from that production here on Outlander] starring Gerard Butler. Butler can be a pleasure to watch [300, Reign Of Fire] as well as a dreadful mess [those damn romantic comedies in particular]. I expected much more from him, but he has made some poor career decisions taking on some appalling material . Finally, there is the loosely based Beowulf  starring Christopher Lambert. One of these days I will need to give a proper look at all of these films, but for my money I've always remained true to the heroic English poem. The original. If I'm not going to see a true classic, then let's place it within a science fiction context. Why not?
So here we are with Outlander dubbed as a mix of Beowulf and Predator . Predator is splendid genre fun and presents big shoes to fill, never mind reaching the heights of a classic, old English poem. Predator was your classic science fiction monster film and it was so well-constructed by Director John McTiernan it remains infinitely rewatchable to this day. Who hasn't seen that film more than once? What happened to McTiernan? Well, surprisingly he is involved in criminal proceedings since 2006 and that has a tendency to sideline a career. So, if Outlander is filled with the promise of Beowulf and Predator where exactly do I sign up? Mind you, I am worried. Those are two classic, very big, iconic cultural references to throw into a descriptive catch phrase. Somehow, there's a good chance it won't quite live up to those amped-up expectations.
So what else drew me to Outlander? What else would have me defy absolutely non-existent word of mouth [save for maybe FDF's take over at Guardians Of The Genre]? My gut. Yes, my gut, apart from filling it with blueberry pie, spoke to me and said I would enjoy this picture. I do work off instinct regularly and more often than not I can predict whether the film is worth my time [normally]. I have been wr-wr-wr-ong [Happy Days' Arthur Fonzarelli never liked saying it either].
I would have enjoyed a little more of the science part of the fiction.
The other big draw for me was the cast, three in particular. Outlander stars Jim Caviezel and guest stars Ron Perlman and John Hurt. How could this picture go wrong? It came and went in 2008 and as far as I know is still flying under the radar somewhere over Iceland. Ron Perlman is a gem of an actor. I've seen so much with the actor that I love [Sons Of Anarchy, Alien Resurrection, Enemy At The Gates] and some features with the actor that have disappointed [Mutant Chronicles]. The same year Outlander arrived the Mutant Chronicles [Thomas Jane, Ron Perlman, John Malkovich] landed as well and neither fared particularly well.
What can you say about John Hurt? The man adds a touch of class to anything he graces. He's legend. Hurt and Perlman even featured together in Hellboy . Apart from Alien  the man has a massive, impressive resume.
Finally, it was James Caviezel that closed the deal for me. I had been quietly admiring his work from afar for some time. Next to his wonderfully transformative portrayal of Jesus Christ in The Passion Of The Christ  by Director Mel Gibson it was another film that remains a classic in my film library. Caviezel's performance in the ensemble-driven The Thin Red Line  by Director Terrence Malick was a moving one and one that has remained with me with understated power for many years. The remaining cast members certainly add to the film, but Caviezel was the engine of that film for me. He was the soldier with who I connected most. All in all it's a war classic for me alongside Black Hawk Down  and We Were Soldiers . Since The Passion Of The Christ [a film success that would be an anomaly in anyone's career] there have clearly been missteps for Caviezel and studio losses may have compounded his problems in retaining top billing in big budget pictures. Director Ang Lee's Ride With The Devil  resulted in an epic that would become an epic financial disaster that followed The Thin Red Line the next year. There have also been some interesting smaller films mixed with some headscratchers. Where Caviezel is going in his career is uncertain, but he has not gained the kind of momentum I thought he might following The Passion Of The Christ. Outlander was one of his many lesser known pictures for which he is becoming known. Some might see Caviezel's moves as curious like The Prisoner  remake. Some might characterize his efforts as taking risks as in the case of The Stoning Of Soraya M. . Whatever your opinion of Caviezel, he is still making a mark and it was primarily Caviezel's presence inside of a science fiction adventure that called for me to roll the dice.
Tom Lang of The Detroit News says "Honestly: Best. Movie. Ever." Really? That's not faint praise and it's either taken completely out of context or I'm in for a treat. Somehow I doubt the latter. Either way it's going to speak volumes about Tom Lang. We'll see.
My initial thoughts upon the explosive opening and the landing on Earth in Norway 709 AD of our wayward Outlander were imminently hopeful and positive. The special effect, while maybe not boasting cutting edge, were still beautifully handled. The Outlander's crashing ship reminded me of the expertly crafted opening in John Carpenter's The Thing or the opening crash sequence a la my favorite part of Pitch Black . It was implemented with a real professionalism and falls somewhere between those aforementioned films in its level of detail. These shots are handled with expert direction by Director Howard McCain and the cinematography, filmed in Newfoundland, Halifax and Nova Scotia, by Pierre Gill is crisp and beautiful. It certainly should given its 47 million dollar budget, a budget larger than Alien , Aliens , Predator , Predator 2 , Pitch Black  and to be more responsibly comparative, Predators  to offer perspective. This genre picture took a massive loss and Caviezel has had his fair share of them. Nevertheless, McCain's detail of the crashing vessel into a lake with fish flipping from the water offers some nice detail often overlooked in big budget Hollywood productions.
Kainan, played by Caviezel, arrives in a stunning suit of body armor complete with four glowing red lights. Lose the helmet and he fits nicely amongst the Nordic clans. When Kainan activates a variety of technologically-advanced devices set against a backdrop of mountainous nature, the juxtaposition of the two distinctly different worlds is severe and the parallel is duly noted for fanboys. His alien dialect is replaced with that of the Norse language [English] and his first word following the pain of the mental overhaul is "fuck." Speaking of fanboys, we wanted more of this.
Honestly, a little more of the alien space gun would have been nice though.
Kainan's only friend has been killed. A visible gash across his mate's armor chest plate and flashbacks to a slashed door of his home indicate he has brought monstrous company along for the ride. Now lurking somewhere in mother nature a creature is on the prowl as a result of gaining entry aboard his spacecraft. I'm instantly reminded of that nasty alien queen stowaway from Aliens slicing our man Bishop, played by Lance Henriksen, in half.
Kainan happens upon a carcass of a whale, a popular Viking favorite. He finds he is clearly in a place punctuated by swords against his one very cool alien weapon. A crippled village, splatters of blood and claw marks indicate his alien friend has already been there.
Before long, Kainan is knocked unconscious and brought back to the fortified viking encampment. His alien weapon is knocked loose and flung into a waterfall. This sad moment is marked by tears as the event signals to the audience, 'sorry, it's not going to be that kind of picture.' Damn! That weapon was nifty too. Sadly, we never see that gem again. Further, a portion of the budget must have been spent in the initial few minutes of the picture.
Rothgar, played by John Hurt [a loose interpretation on the King from Beowulf], is in a sword battle with his daughter Freya who refuses to marry a tyrant's son. Ah, those father/daughter days. The late village tyrant's son Wulfric desires Freya. You know the story. Externally, the village that was destroyed belonged to Gunnar [Ron Perlman] and Rothgar prays that whoever did it be discovered soon or war could ensue between the peoples.
Wulfric requests Freya look after the captured "outlander." While disinterested at first, she does eventually come to her senses. He's handsome. She's hot. You know the drill.
As the village awaits Gunnar's pissed-off arrival, and as Kainan's about to make haste and make his escape, the alien beast arrives, not Gunnar. Without seeing a whole lot of the CGI detail, the creature is a lethal, vicious thing complete with some kind of phosphorescent whip tentacle. It's nasty. I couldn't help but think this is the exactly the kind of genre picture that I'd like to see from Sy Fy, but budgets on that channel are sorely limiting. Kainan knows the creature is in his midst and goes after it complete with a vintage Nordic axe. I'm not sure that's going to cut the mustard or the creature for that matter. Kainan finally catches up to the monster as it makes its way up over the village wall. He hollers to it. "Moorwen!" In the shadows, it's a pretty nifty looking beast with sharp teeth. I fear the CGI may be a bit to quick for my taste and I worry the effects won't hold up in the final analysis. There is nothing worse than unrealistic CGI movements. This brings me back to an earlier point. This is why Outlander, on an effects level, simply won't hold up to the live-action effects employed in a film like Aliens. Kainan is quickly hauled back. Somehow, defying all logic, although it was dark [not enough torches apparently], few actually saw the beast except for those who screamed before perishing. Kainan will be held accountable. As Kainan witnesses villagers weeping over lost loved ones, he flashes back to his homeworld where his own family was slaughtered by the beast.
Given the Earth timeline and mentions of Lucifer, I'm a bit surprised Kainan hasn't been drawn and quartered yet under the mistaken belief he could be some kind of shape-shifting monster or alleged work of the devil. Kainan fills Rothgar and the villagers in on Moorwen. It draws its prey via bioluminescence.
Kainan can't cut a break. He's brought on a journey to hunt down the Moorwen, but he's also tied at the hands. Freya, who was struck by Kainan earlier, returns to see him off with a vengeful right hook.
As Rothgar and Kainan speak we're left to wonder if Rothgar believes Kainan to be of this world or not. When he speaks of a "ship" I couldn't help but imagine he thought Kainan was referring to a boat from the south or the north, but of this world. Either way, it's played with intentional ambiguity. As the two men speak, despite being of other worlds, they share similar fates and joys and tears due to the ties that bind family as well as their fight against a common enemy. As the men travel through the woods, you are reminded of the band of merry men that were picked off one by one in Predator. Would a similar fate await them?
Bones are strewn across their journey. Filmed on location in picturesque Vancouver, Outlander does look terrific. With Moorwen staring up at the men on the rocks from the lake just feet below, the men are drawn to screams in the distance. A grizzly bear attacks and the sequence is filmed in such a way as to minimize cost and the need to fully realize the bear. The Outlander's assistance in the battle earns him freedom from his chains.
Returned to camp, Kainan is slowly going native, dressing as the Nordic do, meeting in the mead hall. He is becoming one with those within his newfound home who have accepted him. Freya is leary, but overhears the tale of the battle with the grizzly bear. She overhears the men speak of how Kainan saved King Rothgar, Freya's father.
Not to be outdone, Writer/ Director Howard McCain even has the Outlander Kainan befriend a little viking boy named Erik as in the mythic Erik the Viking of legendary Norse mythology. There is much testosterone, drinking, yelling, and good old-fashioned, filthy Viking merriment, which steeps the film in the reality of a period piece. Before long Kainan and Wulfric enjoy a bit of fun Viking gamesmanship called shields [to ultimately determine who will win Freya's heart no doubt]. Freya is impressed by the Outlander and surprisingly [without jealous heart] so is Wulfric. But Freya clearly fancies Kainan.
Quickly, the fotress-like village comes under seige from Gunnar's tribe. Blood and violence become the order of the evening. Gunnar, played ferociously by Ron Perlman, is so big and so intimidatingly nasty no wonder the villagers fears him. Yikes. They talk of him often, as noted in the documentary clip below. He is indeed a living legend. With Rothgar pinned down by Gunnar, Kainan saves him [again]. As quickly as it began, it ends. Perlman is spectacular in his extremely small part.
As if Moorwen wasn't enough to worry about, we've got a big fat Gunnar to boot. Gunnar's men plan a second attack, but things don't go as planned thanks to a little, itty-bitty nasty named Moorwen. The creature takes out all of Gunnar's men. Gunnar, not surprisingly, the big bastard that he is, doesn't back down and strikes at the fiery red creature. It's tentacles like red lightning bolts lashing and creating floating embers from the scorched wood that surrounds them. There is a certain visual appeal to the creature and the location that does work well in placing this science fiction tale within the world of Beowulf. Rothgar fires upon Gunnar and his men until Kainan realizes it isn't Moorwen, but rather a fleeing Gunnar clan. They cease fire and allow Gunnar and his men inside the walled compund from the demon beast. The co-existence makes for an uneasy, unsavory peace, but certainly entertaining. The Outlander makes clear that the beast cannot be killed. It must be trapped and King Rothgar heeds his advice despite Wulfric's penis-heavy appeal to go out and kill it. So outside the fortress walls the men dig a giant hole.
As the men miraculously build one of the deepest holes ever dug, eighth-wonder-of-the-world deep [not really], Kainan requests postholes. "What d'ya need postholes fer?" Kainan replies quite simply, for "Posts." One can glean much from such simple exchanges. Outlander plays it straight up, plays it simple and isn't looking to get too tricky despite a few sound messages. Outlander is a film for the science fiction fan looking for a bit of genre fun. When it's all said and done the men build quite a trap. It's many feet deep with roughly 8 long posts, shields atop, with the hole entirely filled with highly explosive oil. The hole is walled up on every side too. It should do the trick. Should. That super-duper alien weapon would have been nice. Oh well, back to ancient weaponry and post hole diggers.
There's a depiction of the alien lair that is intriguing. It certainly gives the allusion of a Grendel place where the beast eats its prey alive. In one of the film's more interesting backstory moments concerning Kainan and his people he shares his story with Freya. While the tale is simplistic, Kainan describes a people that ruthlessly slaughtered a Moorwen population to usurp their land and their planet by imperialistic force to make it their own. They killed all Moorwen without conscience or consideration of the animals being anything more than cattle. You could liken the tale to the American Indian or any other occupying force through a science fiction lens. The Moorwen planet was decimated by Kainan's race. Kainan admits to Freya "you always have a choice." Kainan is not proud of this one. It eats him everyday and the pursuing Moorwen is there to remind him of his sins every step of the way. The Moorwen, like some avenging angel represents something more than an animal, but a thinking, calculating, hurting creature, a victim of the Outlander lending the beast the audience's sympathy. Having told us his tale I too began rooting for the symbol of Grendel. I couldn't help but cheer for Moorwen. In fact, there was a book by writer John Gardner called Grendel  told from the heartrending viewpoint of Grendel, which was quite sympathetic to the classic tale's villain. If you're a fan of the Old English classic it's well worth your time. This is the case made here too. Sympathy turns toward the beast.
With the snow falling, Kainan and Wulfric plan to lure the beast to its fate. Has Moorwen found a backdoor entry point or is it something more?
Baby, there's a shark in the water.
With Moorwen at the front gate, could there be two a la Grendel and Ma Grendel? I think so. It doesn't end here and I musn't share with you the fates of Ma Grendel and Grendel or in this case Moorwen and Baby Moorwen. I refrain from offering you the fates of Gunnar, Kainan, Wulfric, Rothgar, Freya and young Erik. I leave the genre fun within your capable hands. There is indeed a strange connection between Moorwen and Kainan throughout the film as if Moorwen is indeed a prescient, feeling creature gifted with something more than sheer animal instinct like us. I don't want to give anything away, but I might have preferred if the film gave us a bit of turnabout is fair play given the genocidal ways of Kainan's people. That's all I'll say. Furhter much was made about the beast's near invincibility. Swords seem an unworthy instrument for battle. Nevetherless, Kainan does indicate they would need "better metal" for their final showdown.
This is clearly a picture that trades ray guns for swords in a Lord Of The Rings styled yarn to tell its tale. The CGI is not perfect, and comparable to the CGI depicting aliens in Pitch Black and potentially an improvement upon that. Also, the production, is comparable to another film that featured a reasonably big cast and ended in financially dismal failure- A Sound Of Thunder . Big names like Ben Kingsley combined with Edward Burns couldn't salvage a poorly executed sci-fi, CGI disaster intended for the big screen. This is indeed a much bigger cut above with better execution and a reasonably strong effects house. While they can never substitute for the more tangible nasties of films like The Thing, Aliens and The Relic, this is a solid genre picture.
Honestly, this is not the best movie ever. Perhaps Tom Lang was drinking heavily that evening to look past cliche and predictability. Perhaps the sleeve art to Outlander misrepresented his remarks. I can see the Beowulf/ Predator analogy to be sure. There's a gritty charm about the film that reminded me of my experience witnessing Highlander  in a small theatre in Edinburgh, Scotland back in the day. I don't think I'm far off in making that analogy. In the end, not that Outlander has anything to do with Beowulf, in the purest sense, but as a loose interpretation with a science fiction twist, the concept gives pause and I give a mild recommendation. The predator itself pales in comparison to the creation in John McTiernan's film. But, what if the great Old English poems with their outlandish tales of monsters weren't the beneficiary of an extra-terrestrial transport. Why not? Despite time discrepancies, what if Grendel wasn't actually of this world assuming Grendel was not the mythic beast? As Nordic adventures go, it's entertaining and we don't get many of them. When I consider Hollywood's idea of great science fiction [Aliens Vs Predator, Transformers] this is a much more impressive alternative. Howard McCain may someday develop his craft and this grand little film might just be remembered as something of a worthy start to a decent career. Time will tell. The spirit and heart of Outlander is in exactly the right place and it plays wisely within its world, besides I'm always game for a good Beowulf retelling.
Howard McCain actually penned the script for Outlander while in film school  inspired by Beowulf and Viking lore. Director Renny Harlin initially showed interest in making the film. By 2005, Weinstein Company backed McCain. Actor Karl Urban was initially considered for the role of Kainan before going to Caviezel. Despite my greater affection for the science fiction elements Outlander it is a fine genre mix. It's ashame no one saw it, because it was clearly a labor of love and they don't often come this good.
* Telling friends about my latest science fiction viewings is never easy by the way. Normally, when I tell friends about the films I've watched I get the head tilt. In essence, I'm the alien. Outlander was a fine example of that. I would tell them I picked up Outlander and they would say, "wow, that's an old film." I always had to follow that response up with, "No, not Outland  with Sean Connery. This is a recent film with Jim Caviezel, the guy from The Passion Of The Christ who played Jesus." That's normally followed with, "ooohhh" and a blank stare of complete disinterest head tilting back. They really must think I have far too much time on my hands.
The Cast: James Caviezel [1968-present]. Career highlights include: G.I. Jane , The Thin Red Line , Ride With The Devil , Frequency , Pay It Forward , Madison , Angel Eyes , The Count Of Monte Cristo , High Crimes , Highwaymen , I Am David , The Passion Of The Christ , The Final Cut , Bobby Jones: Stroke Of Genius , Unknown , Deja Vu , The Stoning Of Soraya M. , Nature's Grave  and The Prisoner .
John Hurt [1940-present]. His resume is vast, but for me his career highlights include: Watership Down , Midnight Express , Alien , The Elephant Man , The Osterman Weekend , 1984 , Scandal , The Field , Rob Roy , Dead Man , Wild Bill , Contact , Captain Corelli's Mandolin , Hellboy , The Proposition , V For Vendetta , Hellboy II: The Golden Army  and 44 Inch Chest . Hell, I'm impressed.
Ron Perlman [1950-present]. His voice work is as impressive as his feature film and television work. Here are some of the highlights: Quest For Fire , Beauty And The Beast [1987-1990], Cronos , The City Of Lost Children , The Island Of Dr. Moreau , Alien Resurrection , Enemy At The Gates , Blade II , Star Trek Nemesis , Hellboy , Teen Titans [2004-2006], Desperation , In The Name Of The King: A Dungeon Seige Tale , Hellboy II: The Golden Army , Mutant Chronicles  and Sons Of Anarchy [2009-2010].
Sophia Myles [1980-present]. Her career highlights include: From Hell , Underworld , Thunderbirds , Underworld: Evolution  and Doctor Who: The Girl In The Fire Place .
DVD Extras: The Deleted Scenes are notable and worth the additional time. There is an extensive Alternate Opening scene explaining how Hrothgar [John Hurt] became king. These scenes offer additional depth into the characters and the film's tone. The deleted scenes are equally entertaining to boot. You'll recall in the beginning two men landed and Kainan's partner, the Captain, died from wounds sustained by the Moorwen. In the deleted scenes, he's actually alive long enough for a decent little sequence. An unfinished, creepy segment where a young boy is lured to the Moorwen's bioluminescent tentacles is as evil and mesmerizing as a bug to a flame. These omissions are noteworthy. Perhaps they were unnecessary, but they are quite good. There is a fine enough documentary called Two Worlds, One Film: The Making Of Outlander [16 min.]. Howard McCain offers some wonderful insight into the realization of his dream and his personal translation of Beowulf within the science fiction context. Creature Designer Patrick Tatopoulis discusses his delightful creature creation. Unfortunately, the discussion does once again confirm my general disdain for CGI monsters. Here's a terrific bit from the documentary featuring Perlman [in perfect comic mode], Hurt and Caviezel.