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Outlander (2008)
Director: Howard McCain

review by J.C. Hartley
Joseph Campbell's The Hero With A Thousand Faces established the fact of the mono-myth, heroic characters in archetypal folkloric stories with cultural transformations through subsequent generations. Beowulf, of course, has generated its own film versions, as well as many parodies, and rewritings, and has a noble tradition of adaptation in SF film and literature.

An alien ship crash-lands on Earth, described as an 'abandoned seed colony', suggesting that the aliens have been here before. It is Norway in 709AD. The aliens in spacesuits, very like plate armour, emerge from a fjord; one of them is injured and dies. The survivor sets a beacon, speed-learns the local language and culture and, after finding a devastated local village, arms himself and sets about hunting for something he has clearly brought with him in his ship. Captured by a local Viking warrior, Wulfric (Jack Huston, Shrooms) the alien loses his weaponry and is taken to another settlement. Here he reveals he was hunting a dragon.

Kainan (James Caviezel, 6 in The Prisoner remake), convinces the villagers about the existence of a monster after a murderous attack on the village in which only he glimpses a lizard-like creature scaling the stockade. A hunting expedition kills a monstrous bear and Kainan is instrumental in saving King Rothgar (John Hurt). Kainan is accepted into the community and competes in a drunken shield-walking competition with Wulfric rather reminiscent of Kirk Douglas in The Vikings. Kainan reveals to Rothgar's daughter, Freya (Sophia Myles, Thunderbirds), that the bear is not the real monster.

Gunnar (Ron Perlman, Hellboy), convinced that his village has been attacked on the orders of Rothgar, attacks but when driven off is forced to flee back to the stockade as the creature is waiting for them in the woods. The monster is revealed and, after it slaughters many of the Vikings, Kainan reveals that it is he that brought the creature, a Moorwen, to their shores. Kainan tells Freya that his people, hungry for land, destroyed the Moorwen and built homes on their world, but a surviving Moorwen came back and killed Kainan's wife and child.

The Vikings build a trap on Kainan's instructions, but not only does the Moorwen escape to wreak havoc, it is revealed that it has one offspring. Kainan realises that the conventional edged-weapons of the Vikings will not penetrate the Moorwen's hide and organises a dive to his sunken ship to salvage some alien metal. The Moorwen attacks while Kainan is underwater and Freya is assumed killed.

Kainan, Wulfric, and Boromir descend through the village well and discover an underground volcanic labyrinth, the Moorwen's lair. Meanwhile Freya, still alive but on the menu, has woken up among a massive heap of the Moorwen's victims. The film now utilises horror elements with the two monsters pursuing Kainan and the Vikings through the underground tunnels before a denouement on the edge of a waterfall.

The blend of SF and swordplay works quite well, the original idea had been for Vikings versus monsters, which the makers had considered implausible, only giving the go-ahead when the SF elements were added. The twist on the Beowulf story is that the Moorwen attack on Kainan's home is the equivalent of the original Grendel's attack on Herot. What is less certain is why Kainan is transporting the Moorwen when his ship goes down. Also, the Moorwen displays such tenacity in resisting efforts to destroy it the rather rapid assumption that the fall from the waterfall has killed it seems optimistic.

James Caviezel is suitably taciturn to make an otherworld visitor, James Huston is a little urban as Wulfric, and Sophia Myles makes an incredibly posh Viking princess. John Hurt, of course, can do impressive Viking kings in his sleep. The monster appears to change its appearance as the film progresses, reminiscent of the xeno-morph in Alien. Its early appearances suggest the creature from Terry Gilliam's Jabberwocky or the Id-monster from Forbidden Planet. Rather than great SF, this film is an interesting addition to Beowulf's cultural transformations and a reasonable night-in.

DVD extras include commentaries, extended and deleted scenes, galleries and special effects stuff, as usual, depending upon which edition you buy.

Outlander (2008)
Director: Howard McCain

review by Ian Sales

An alien crash-lands on Earth in the 8th century and begins terrorising a nearby Viking village. Also on the spaceship, and its only other survivor, is a human. He helps the Vikings track down, and kill, the dragon-like alien. And so was born the legend of Beowulf and Grendel...

Put like that, there's no denying that Outlander is based on a cool idea. So, it's a real shame the film subsequently proves to be a by-the-numbers Hollywood action adventure SF movie, despite being an independent production. You can tick off the stereotypes as the film progresses. Wise king? Check. Feisty female? Check. Rival for the female's affections? Check. Wise-cracking sidekick? Check. That the various cast members play their parts well says more about the thinness of their roles than it does their acting ability. Admittedly, Outlander has a high-powered cast - not just Jim Cavaziel in the title role, but John Hurt as King Rathgar, and Sophia Myles as feisty love-interest Freya.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about Outlander was the way in which the film was made - as revealed in a featurette on the DVD. Writer-director McCain had no money to make the film, and could not get it green-lighted by a studio. So he spent what little money he could raise on world-building. He had a team of designers and artists creating sketches and maquettes of the dragon-like alien, the costumes, the storyboard, etc. All this was then used to raise money from investors. I suppose it's an improvement over reducing a movie's story to a trite 50-word pitch...

But then perhaps focusing on the world-building is why the story itself feels like it was slotted together from story-modules. Nothing really comes as a surprise because you've seen it so many times before, albeit in other guises. This doesn't mean Outlander fails to look good - it often looks fine; and while it may not feel entirely authentic, it presents a very Viking-like fantasy world. For instance, there are certainly fjords in Norway - the word itself is Norwegian. But the country in no way resembles the Himalayas, and Outlander's picture-postcard landscape frequently overwhelms the story.

Having said all that, the story of Outlander stands or falls on two elements: Cavaziel's character, and that of the monster... The latter is actually a bit of a disappointment. It looks like some sort of giant mutant chimera, if such a thing could ever be said to exist. Parts of it also light up, which leads to some effective and scary moments in the film. But it does not evoke anything like the visceral terror that the creature in the Alien franchise did.

Cavaziel is better. He learns the local language in a matter of seconds using some sort of science-fictional retinal projector, which is apparently extremely painful - and makes you wonder why anyone would ever use it. He's more believable as an alien visitor to Earth than many of the other cast are as Vikings. The latter situation is not helped by the range of British accents spoken by those playing the Viking villagers. You'd think people living in the same village would all speak the same. Perhaps they all sounded the same to the director.

Intelligent science fiction films are rare beasts, and becoming increasingly rarer. Outlander's premise suggested it might be one. Sadly, it was not to be. It's entertaining enough and put together well... but it's just another action-adventure film pasted into a science-fictional premise.

Outlander on DVD

Outlander poster

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Beowulf & Grendel

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