Outlander is like a screw that needs one big turn to be seated good and tight. It’s got ingredients for the perfect genre confection — Vikings and alien dragons — as well as appealing actors and impressive effects that belie the film’s relatively small budget. This is obviously a labor of love. In an era of dull, unimaginative sequels I hate to lash out at an ambitious, independently financed and grassroots promoted genre flick. But I didn’t like it much at all.
Two problems: the film is awkward, and borrowed. Awkward I can deal with, and even embrace. Many a genre classic lacks grace; the quality can even make an otherwise OK film even better. You’ll see Outlander‘s wobbly steps very early on, as when Kainan (Jim Cavieziel), an alien fallen to Earth near a Viking village during the Iron Age, removes his helmet for the first time. It should be Caviezel’s hero shot, a reintroduction to an actor of whom we’ve seen very little since he polarized opinions in The Passion of the Christ.
Instead, the shot is just a bit off; it gets a second-place medal. “That’s it?” The rest of the film follows suit. As Kainan is taken prisoner by a Viking tribe led by Rothgar (John Hurt), events take their sweet time going into motion. Scenes stretch on too long as they try to establish a web of characters and their relations. The backstories of Rothgar’s would-be warrior daughter Freya (Sophia Myles) and ambitious military commander Wulfric (Jack Huston, far too well groomed) slow the pace; the ‘show, don’t tell’ balance is way out of whack. Director Howard McCain (who co-wrote with Dirk Blackman) tries to indulge in ancient Norse intrigue, and we snooze.
Outlander‘s storytelling is too tentative to be vital. Kainan has promise: his people all but exterminated a planet full of beasts called Moorwens, the last of which has hitched a ride to Earth with Kainan. But once the last Moorwen, an alien dragon pretending to be the beast from Forbidden Planet, starts to wreak havok it all feels so much like a wan retelling of Beowulf. You’ve got a king named Rothgar, the attack on a mead hall, a subterranean den that looks like an abattoir (some nice set dressing there) and a parent/child monster pair.
My charitable side says it’s just that we’ve seen Beowulf so recently, but that’s not the problem. Outlander doesn’t commit to the Beowulf angle; it borrows, but doesn’t take the story anywhere. Layer in notes from The 13th Warrior, Alien and stock Viking epics alongside some very silly original beats, like the mead hall game of running along a pathway of shields held aloft (which naturally recurs later in the film) and it’s too much to wade through.
The dross overwhelms cool ideas. Among the good: the Moorwen is a creepy design brought to more impressive life than I’d expect to see in a $50m picture. Hurt and Myles commit themselves in a way that suggests fantasy epics from the ’70s and ’80s, and Ron Perlman roars through a small role as a hammer-wielding chieftain. I grew to like Huston’s second-fiddle warrior, even when he gave scenes a little CW network flavor.
Stuff genre hounds love is here, too: long and lingering scenes of Moorwen-on-man violence; Kainan & Co. making weapons out of alien metal dredged from his downed ship; Perlman’s hammers bringing the most famous Cannibal Corpse song to life.
But Caviezel’s Kainan always remains a cipher. Attempts to illustrate his sad past fall prey to Limited Budget Syndrome. The climax and resolution, which drag on like an underfunded highway repair project, are wildly unsatisfying. Finally, Kainan ends up as a tweaked version of Caviezel’s most famous screen character. I can’t figure if that’s meant to be a joke, or if it’s just an ill-advised ending to a film that can’t decide between retelling other stories and delivering it’s own.