Sunday, October 18, 2009

REVIEW: Outlander

From the occasional reviews you read here you might get the idea that I often wait until long after a movie is out of the theatres and onto DVD before I watch it. You'd be right. You might also get the idea that I'm more likely to write a bad review than a good one. Right again. It's very rare for a movie to be good enough to move me to write a review. The reasons are two-fold.
1. Movies that aren't crap are gushed about in the mainstream media, so there's little need for me to do so.
2. Most movies are crap. This includes most of those that are gushed about in the mainstream media.
Put these together and you see that most of my reviews would fall into the category of correcting the paid shills who gush over something undeserving of praise. Sometimes, though, a movie gets short shrift, and needs to be lifted up.

Such is the case with Outlander, a 2008 film by Howard McCain starting Jim Caviezel, Sophia Myles, Ron Perlman, and John Hurt. You should see already that the acting chops are there. So are the production values. So I was a more than a little disappointed to see how poorly it had done at the box office. I picked up the DVD for $5, not expecting much for the price, and boy, was I surprised!

Let's start with the concept. "Beowulf meets Predator", as it states on the DVD box. One would expect some lousy, sloppy "Sci-Fi channel" bug-eyed monster of the week with that admittedly ridiculous concept. But good storytelling doesn't lie in the concept; it lies in what you do with it. Now, with this kind of concept you could go campy, a la Army of Darkness, or you could play it straight. Playing it straight is the hard part, in that you run the risk of looking really, really bad; a trap this movie thankfully avoids.

The story: The year is 709. An alien spacecraft crash-lands in Norway carrying a might-as-well-be-human crew, of which only one individual, "Kainan" (Caviezel) survives. Unfortunately, there is another survivor: a bad-ass alien predatory dragon... uhm... thingy. OK, it's a little hard to describe, but that's the point. It's alien. More alien, in fact, than Ridley Scott's Alien.)

Kainan crosses paths with Wulfric (Jack Huston) and is taken back to the the village of King Rothgar (John Hurt). As it turns out, the village is at war, and Kainan is taken to be a spy. The fact that Kainan answers "I'm hunting dragons" when questioned doesn't help his credibility. The fact that the village is then attacked by said dragon does.

The rest of the story serves up your usual epic poetry fare: there's some monster chasin', and damsel-rescuin', all-out heroics, and a lot of savin'-th'-day. Not to mention a lot of "Oh, shit, didn't we just kill that thing?" The story closely parallels Beowulf:so closely, in fact, that I was frankly surprised that the Kainan doesn't adopt the name "Beowulf" at the end. (Damn! I gave it away. Well, I don't care about spoilers. If you do, stop reading.) That's actually part of the fun. The crew takes this epic, gives it just enough spin to let you see how it could be turned from spaceman to Beowulf in the retelling, and then manages to avoid the obvious cliches.

For instance... the first we see of the king's daughter Freya (Sophia Miles), she's practicing swordplay with her father. So she's going to turn out to be like Xena, or the "re-imagined" Guinevere of King Arthur, or every other kick-ass warrior princes, right? Wrong. She's a girl. They didn't do that in the year 709. She gets to be damsel-in-distress. And while 50 years ago "damsel-in-distress" was the cliche, today it's the other way 'round, and two thumbs up to the writer for his choice.

Then there's the alien. Not the creature, but the spaceman, Kainan. He's just a guy. He doesn't have a truckload of fancy gadgets and lasers, etc. Well, he does start out with a gun, but loses that pretty quick. And the rest of his stuff is at the bottom of the lake with his ship. The one gadget he does get a good bit of use out of early on is the computer which tells him he's lost and pretty much hosed, and which speed-feeds him the Nordic language; a process so painful you'd just as soon walk around ignorant. Job done, he leaves it behind. So we're left with an ordinary guy in a strange land, whose only real advantage is whatever he carries with him in his head. He's no super-genius, either; just a paid grunt getting by like the rest of us. No latex, no webbed feet, no cybernetic implants... he's as refreshing as was Klaatu in 1951.

The other alien ain't too shabby, either. It defies description, yes; but it's plausible in every way. It's sort of panther-like in its carriage; sort of insectoid in that it has an apparent exoskeleton (or really thick plated skin like an armadillos... but not heavy); it has a deep-sea fish's knack of attracting prey with colored light patterns that play across its skin (not in a cheesy way, but in the way that an octopus changes color); and a scorpion-like or whip-like tail. But it's not like any of those things either. It just works, and by that I mean it works on-screen and as a concept. Yeah, it's CGI, but it's really good CGI. It's thoroughly unique among film aliens. It makes the Ridley Scott Alien look like a guy in a suit. Oh wait. It was.

All in all, I don't mind that it's a re-telling of Beowulf. Actually, I picked up on that pretty quickly (as soon as I saw that the king was named (what sounded to me like) Hrothgar. It was frankly a better retelling of Beowulf than Beowulf & Grendel or Grendel, and a damn sight better than 2007's Beowulf with its cheescake Grendel's Mother played by Angelina Jolie. Again, it's not the concept, it's what you do with it that counts.

So I'm a little disappointed about the box office numbers. Frankly, if I'd ever heard of it before I'd have seen it in the theatres myself. I also think it deserves much better than the 38% rating it got on Just remember that Roger Ebert liked Jar Jar Binks and adjust your weighting of his review accordingly. Then watch Outlander and be entertained.

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