Squint hard enough while watching Outlander — a one-time-only geekgasm of aliens, alternate timelines and Vikings — and you might spot that SciFi logo in the lower right portion of the TV screen.
In all fairness, there are commendable production values and effectively rocking seat-of-the-pants action moments in Outlander. It was hailed as yet another B-movie romp from the Weinstein Company only to be unceremoniously dumped on DVD. But like 300, this is a high concept primed for breakneck insanity that is ridiculously solemn.
Again, it’s aliens, alternate timelines and Vikings. It’s not The Lord of the Rings (no matter if a character’s name is Boromir). It’s not The Last of the Mohicans (shamelessly aped in a climactic waterfall duel.). Despite its easily confusable title, it’s not even Highlander. At least that movie had the thick-necked, wisecracking Kurgan.
Plus, this thing is 115 minutes long. Knock a half-hour out of it, and it would be economically entertaining. (That there are 40 minutes of deleted scenes on the DVD, or that anyone thought a 155-minute version of the story would work, is absurd.)
One wonders what Guillermo del Toro or even Neil Marshall — a master of the modern B-movie thanks to Dog Soldiers, The Descent and Doomsday — could have done here. They certainly would have suffused it with subtext and spirit, but not such hoary epic pretensions.
The film opens with a spacecraft landing in Norway circa 709 A.D. Out pops Kainan, played by Jim Caviezel as if Thomas Jane’s dour spirit took over Luke Wilson’s body. He’s a soldier from the future able to download all he needs to know about 8th-century Norway. It easily solves a time-travel question and, unfortunately, is one of the few smart plot points in the screenplay.
Captured by Vikings, Kainan is brought before John Hurt’s ruling Rothgar. (Dropping that silent “h” won’t fool the Beowulf bandwagon.) Turns out Kainan’s ship was brought down by a Moorwen — a conveniently medieval-sounding name for a nasty bioluminescent dragon with tentacles and teeth that rip through walls. And, naturally, the Moorwen has escaped.
Rothgar is inherently suspicious of Kainan; he could, after all, be a spy for rival tribesman Gunnar (Ron Perlman, blessedly thundering through a few scenes). But the Moorwen eventually proves too much for Iron Age weaponry alone, and the warring Viking clans must unite under Kainan’s leadership before becoming a Moorwen meal.
You sort of expect some King Arthur here, and a skoach of Pirates of the Caribbean, namely in the Hans Zimmer knockoff score from Geoff Zanelli. But not Cheers, such as when the Vikings give Kainan the equivalent of the “Norm!” greeting when he walks into the mead hall.
So begins a 20-minute detour to remind us that no, really, see how this is a lot like the Beowulf story … only with an alien. Unable to enliven these proceedings is Sophia Myles as Freya, both hard fighter and maiden fair. Myles looks like Knightley circa Arthur, only with redder hair, more makeup and colder, deader eyes. Co-writer / director Howard McCain does conjure up some striking spacescapes, and there’s some unexpected pathos to the Moorwen. But Outlander is little more than a medieval sci-fi spin on the same sort of dour, predictable dragon-destruction tale told in Reign of Fire.