Monday, May 31, 2010

Review: Outlander

Outlander (2008)

Outlander is the “Vikings versus alien monster” flick that pretty much no one asked for (except that one guy in Oslo). Screenwriters Dirk Blackman and Howard McCain (the latter also directed) were happy to oblige that narrow demographic.

The Passion of the Christ's Jim Caviezel plays Kainan, a humanoid alien whose spaceship crash-lands in Norway in the 8th century. Not only does he land in the middle of a feud between two Viking villages, but Kainan also brought with him the Moorwen, a sort of glow-in-the-dark steroidal panther-monster-thing that’s about the size of a dump truck. The Moorwen starts hacking, slashing and eating the villagers on both sides, so they band together and with Kainan’s help attempt to vanquish this dragon come to life.

To say this is a goofy movie is a bit of an understatement. Caviezel is extremely stoic as Kainan, and that works. He makes a convincing action hero, haunted by his personal loss and the horror that he’s unleashed on the Vikes. However, the Vikings are the least Nordic ever assembled on screen; I don’t think I saw one blond warrior in the scruffy, dirty bunch (the little feral kid doesn't count). This was a relatively low-budget effort (at $50 million) but the costume design didn’t seem to reflect the Norse setting at all. Everyone looked like they wore almost generic early-Middle Ages garb; the costumes looked better than a Xena episode, but I just wish they reflected that Nordic verisimilitude more.

Sophia Myles plays Freya, daughter of King Rothgar (John Hurt) and the girl with her eyes on Kainan. We first meet her as she’s doing sword training with her pops. I have to say I’m now Officially Sick of the revisionist bent of movies like this where they have the plucky woman who can wield a sword as well as a man. Unless it’s a race of Amazons I don’t want to see this anymore. There was no reason to have her be a champion sword fighter, except for the one scene where she defends herself during the rival village’s attack. Filmmakers often say they strive for realism, especially with the look and costuming of a movie, but then they turn around and put in T2’s Sarah Conner in a medieval tunic. Enough I say.

The Moorwen, designed by Patrick Tatopoulis, looks exactly like what it is: a CGI creation. It often seems pasted onto scenes rather than being truly integrated with the surroundings. The filmmakers appear to have taken a page from the Id monster in Forbidden Planet; the Moorwen isn’t invisible, but it slowly appears in the darkness when it lights up various parts of itself with its luminescent abilities. Like 99.9% of CGI creatures it moves much too fast and doesn't appear to be affected by gravity, which is a major problem with many CGI creations. Hey, animators, watch footage of a cheetah or cobra in action and use that as reference. Then again, Ridley Scott's Alien didn't move as fast as the Moorwen (it was a skinny guy in a rubber suit) and it is one of the most memorable movie monsters of all time, while the more complex Moorwen with its CGI bells and glow in the dark whistles will simply fade from memory. Something to think about filmmakers!

Director McCain does the de rigueur thing of overcutting his action scenes. A simple punch to the face will have at least FOUR cuts: 1. the guy pulls back his fist, 2. the guy’s fist is launched at the other dude, 3. the guy’s fist connects with the dude’s face, and we 4. see the full impact to the face from the opposite angle. Watch the opening of the first Blade movie – the fight scene at the vampire rave is one of the BEST fight scenes ever committed to celluloid. Not only is the fight choreography well done, but it wasn’t shot with a multitude of tight close-ups, which meant you could SEE the fight stances (imagine a Fred Astaire movie where you could only see him dance from the waist up!), and it was edited in such a way as you could FOLLOW the action (the fight scenes weren’t comprised of ¼ second clips, as in so much of today’s video games-as-action movies).

I’ll give Outlander this, they tried. They assembled a good group of actors who played their parts well. I liked that they gave time to Kainan and the Vikings to get to know each other and bond. It was by no means a character-based movie, but it wasn’t just mindless action either. The production also makes good use of stunning locations in Nova Scotia and Newfoundland, with several of the aerial shots of mountains and rivers rivaling the best locations in New Zealand seen in The Lord of the Rings trilogy.

One rather big nit to pick is that they really didn't do anything with the fact that Kainan is an alien. It didn't matter to the story that he fell from the stars. He wasn't viewed as a god by anyone; he could easily have been a member of a far off village which had been decimated by the Moorwen, and has been tracking the beast ever since. At the very least they could have had him wear his alien armor for much of the movie, but in the climactic battle change into Viking garb to signal his full allegiance with his Norse family. Also the movie couldn't seem to make up its mind whether the Moorwen was just a beast, like a lion, or an intelligent creature with a grudge against Kainan (and he it). I mean why else would Kainan yell out, "Moorwen!" whenever he saw the thing. Big game hunters don't scream out "Lion!" when they see their prey. Does the Moorwen KNOW it's a Moorwen?

I wasn’t bored during Outlander, which is the cardinal sin of movie-watching, but with another draft or two of the script, and some memorable dialogue and scenes, I might have cared more.

1 comment:

  1. Great review. Another "good" concept executed at a budget to high to be daring, and too low to get it over the hump.