Vikings vs. aliens -- you're either with it or not. It's a curious concept, likely greeted by one of two reactions -- either palpable intrigue or a total and utter lack of interest -- and even those intrigued know that a killer pitch can't stop a SciFi Channel level stinker from being just that (Sharks in Venice, anyone?). Well, rest assured that this version of that story, which opens in select markets today, isn't all hollow kitsch -- in fact, Outlander is probably the best possible version of whatever movie you've already made in your head from reading those first three words.
During the reign of the Vikings, a spaceship suddenly thunders down from the heavens and crash-lands smack in the middle of Norway. Out tumbles Kainan (James Caviezel), who has to bury his co-pilot and learn the language of the land in short and painful order, respectively -- and who also has to find out what has become of an alien stowaway that claimed much of his own race and is now free to plague a new planet. The local villagers, led by Rothgar (John Hurt), are skeptical of this stranger and his alleged quest to conquer what he only calls a dragon, but soon enough, even the elder, the heir apparent (Jack Huston), and his headstrong wife-to-be (Sophia Myles) will realize that what menaces them is a bigger beast indeed... It's openly a riff on the legend of Beowulf (the time, the place, Hurt's king, false hope in the form of the wrong dead animal, so on). It's less openly a retread of Jaws and Predator. Beyond that, there's a blonde-haired moppet who looks an awful lot like Newt from Aliens, despite being a boy, and the whole 'man loses companion in crash, only to fight creature on new world with skeptical locals and no weapons at their disposal, not to mention a mid-point trial by fire that goes awry' plot runs pretty parallel to Alien 3. And while we're at it, it's not too much of a stretch to draw comparisons to Brotherhood of the Wolf's period combination of Euro-set action and horror.
But while every bit as derivative as, say, Doomsday, it also proves every bit as action-packed and entertaining (why, yes, I did enjoy Doomsday). It's a sometimes silly, sometimes smart story that the cast sells with a straight face and minimal winks. Caviezel is as much the stoic savior as when he played Jesus Christ seemingly ages ago, Hurt plays aged and wise with only increasing ease, Huston is a suitable reluctant sidekick/competition for the love interest, Myles is both pretty and pretty resilient, and a perhaps too brief appearance by a bearded and ever-growling Ron Perlman as the leader of an opposing tribe (did Vikings count as tribes?) offers some hammy relief in the film's middle act.
The other critical aspect that helps Outlander rise above DTV fare of its ilk are the production values. The Nova Scotia locations pass well enough for Norway for those of us who haven't been to either, and the visual effects employed in order to bring the creature -- and its backstory -- to life are fairly decent in terms of character design and computer-generated textures. The seams really don't show all that much, and even if one laments the absence of traditional effects work, the momentary appearance of a red herring in bear form might be enough to make you forgive the CGI throughout the remainder of the film, a film that runs two hours and only feels drawn out in its latest stretches.
Director Howard McCain co-wrote this with Dirk Blackman, who together also wrote this weekend's third entry in the Underworld franchise. Vampires vs. werewolves... aliens vs. Vikings... I'm starting to think that these two might give us hope yet in the name of B-grade creature feature showdowns. Outlander may be getting a courtesy dump in fifteen markets after receiving the good ol' "Weinstein Shuffle", but instead of being buried in a winter wasteland as it might seemingly deserve, it stands as a welcome antidote to awards season and a welcome release for those who think that vikings taking on extraterristrials might be the single coolest thing since snakes ended up on a plane.
Outlander opens today in the following markets: Atlanta, Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Dallas-Ft. Worth, Detroit, Houston, Kansas City, Memphis, Miami-Ft. Lauderdale, Nashville, Orlando, Philadelphia, Sacramento, San Antonio, San Diego, San Francisco, Seattle, and Tampa-St. Petersburg.