by Mel Valentin
Not to be confused with "Outland," the 1982 science-fiction film directed by Peter Hyams and starring Sean Connery (a.k.a. “High Noon in Outer Space”), "Outlander" is as “high concept” as science-fiction/horror films come: it could have been easily renamed "Alien vs. Vikings" or "Vikings vs. Predator." Co-written and directed by Howard McCain and inspired by the Old English epic poem, "Beowulf," the much-delayed (filming ended two years ago) "Outlander" is light on ideas, heavy on "Hercules"/"Xena: Warrior Princess"-style cheese, and, if you happen to be in a forgiving mood, an occasionally engaging romp through the Dark Ages with Jesus (actually James Caviezel) as an alien warrior-savior (just don’t call him the “messiah”). In other words, "Outlander" is leave-your-brain-at-the-door, enjoy-the-colorful-characters-and-set-pieces entertainment and nothing more (or less).Set in 8th century Norway (a.k.a. the Land of the Vikings), Outlander follows Kainan (James Caviezel), an alien who crash lands on Earth. Although Kainan looks human, he isn’t (or at least it’s never established one way or another). At minimum, he’s humanoid. Kainan also isn’t alone: a Moorwen, a predatory alien stowed away aboard his ship, killed his crew and escaped after the crash. Almost as soon as Kainan begins hunting the Moorwen, Wulfric (Jack Huston), a Viking and apparent heir to the throne of a nearby village (all leaders were apparently kings), captures Kainan and brings him back to his village. At first, the king, Rothgar (John Hurt), his daughter, Freya (Sophia Myles), and Wulfric disbelieve Kainan’s story about the dragon-like Moorwen.
"Not quite the sum of its (dismembered body) parts, but close."
Rothgar, Freya, and Wulfric's disbelief turns into terror when the Moorwen attacks the village, killing several villagers and kidnapping several others. The hunt for the Moorwen leads to a bear’s cave, Kainan steps in and saves the king. Despite lingering doubts about his story, Rothgar grants Kainan provisional freedom. The ravenous Moorwen soon reappears, as does a rival king, Gunnar (Ron Perlman), who believes Rothgar and his men are responsible for the slaughter of his family. A rivalry develops between Kainan and Wulfric, both for leadership of the Viking village and for Freya’s romantic affections. Ultimately, the storylines converge on hunting down (or trapping) the Moorwen and killing it before it decimates the Viking village.
The conflict between Kainan and Wulfric, the tentative romance between Kainan and Freya, Kainan's relationship with an orphaned boy, and the set pieces involving the Moorwen in its underground lair hew closely to the stock action-adventure tropes and conventions involving outsiders and existential threats. Where, however, Outlander departs from the formula and, thus, expectations, is in the backstory McCain and his co-writer, Dirk Blackman, gave Kainan and the Moorwen. Kainan is less the hero than he first appears (actually far less) and the Moorwen is more than it appears. Unfortunately, McCain sidesteps the implications of Kainan and the Moorwen's backstory and instead reverts to standard action/adventure tropes in the third act. McCain also includes a throwaway visual gag that suggests Kainan’s race has visited and colonized our world, Erich van Däniken/Chariots of the Gods-style. Unfortunately, McCain leaves this idea unexplored as well."Outlander" excels in at least one area: the conception and realization of the Moorwen. Longtime creature effects designer Patrick Tatopoulos ("I Am Legend," "The Cave," "Underworld," "Pitch Black," "]Godzilla," "Independence Day") stepped in to design the Moorwen, a muscular quadruped equipped with stinger-like tendrils, a sharp tail, and bioluminescence (the better to attract or transfix prey before it strikes) that resembles "Forbidden Planet’s" Monster from the Id by way of A.E. Van Vogt’s classic science-fiction novel, "The Voyage of the Space Beagle" (an inspiration for Ridley Scott's "Alien" as well). Whatever the source or inspiration, the Moorwen looks and acts like a fearsome predator, a predator that may or may not be smarter and more self-aware than Kainan or the Vikings believe. Again, however, McCain leaves another, potentially fascinating idea and its implications unexplored, instead preferring to take "Outlander" where many science-fiction/horror films have gone before.
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originally posted: 01/24/09 03:00:00