Monday, August 17, 2009

"Outlander" Review (UPDATED)

Vikings vs. Aliens. What's not to love?

A few years back, I read a very favorable review on Aintitcool news of a movie called "Reign of Fire," a tale of post-apocalyptic Brits vs. the dragons which had decimated the Earth, with some help by a motley platoon of bad-ass Yanks (led by an altogether unrecognizably buff Matthew McConaughey).

I know; right?

And yet, it muscled its way incongruously onto the short list of the most effective, tightly-crafted monster movies I'd seen in a long time. From the mostly quite deft pacing, A-list production values, and (at times simply jaw-dropping) visual effects, to the surprisingly well-executed character work, "Reign" did things with a pretty absurd premise which led me to markedly expand the parameters of what I was willing to buy as raw material for a well-told story.

Which is why, when I read this review of "Outlander," I did not immediately click back to my newsfeed. This is not a choice I regret, having just watched it.

Is it as good as "Reign of Fire?" Hell, no. Does it deliver the crap sandwich you'd expect from the headline (interstellar traveler crash lands in 8th century Norway, inadvertently delivering a terrifying extraterrestrial beastie into the territory of a Viking king, with whom he must join forces to vanquish the creature that had killed his family on a distant colony world)? Oddly, no.

Part of the credit goes to the casting, with a gravelly John Hurt as the King Rothgar (no, not "Hrothgar" but the ref was not lost) delivering a much-needed gravitas to the fur-sporting Vikings (among whom there was a welcome absence of horned helms), to John Caviezel as the stranded star man, Kainan, and the ever-spunky and appealing Sophia Myles as the king's daughter, the cast plays it straight. This is a good thing, since with a story like this, even the slightest wink would take one dangerously into "SyFy" territory.

Caviezel's Kainan is a haunted, traumatized warrior with a stain on his conscience, and a major score to settle, but he is fundamentally a good man, whose frustration with the barbarians among whom he has landed is balanced by the debt he owes for the calamity he has inadvertently brought down on their heads. The process by which he wends his way into their reluctant good graces unfolds with a surprisingly satisfying exhibition of quiet virtue and bluster-free valor. Some will find his performance flat and monotonous, but I found subtleties which quite compensate for the lack of scenery-chewing machismo (the Vikings shoulder that burden with a delightfully over-the-top mannish elan).

Jack Huston plays Wulfric, the impetuous heir of Rothgar's kingdom with a nice blend of obnoxious testosterone and a promise of unpolished wisdom whose development through the course of the story is surprisingly effective, given how badly you want to brain him with a battle axe at the beginning of the story. His clumsy courtship of Myles' Freya and his bull-headed hostility toward Kainan form the concrete expressions of Rothgar's otherwise generic-sounding reservations about his readiness to claim the throne. We can actually see where he falls short in the role of a true leader, and we get to watch him confront those shortcomings, learn just the right amount of humility, and grow both as a character and as a king-in-waiting. It's a good turn for Huston, somewhat reminiscent of Karl Urban's Eomer in "The Lord of the Rings." He's one to watch, as he brings an appealing humanity to a role which was seemingly made for a cardboard cut-out treatment.

And then there's the creature, a coal-black, vaguely reptilian monster known as a "Moorwen." It's an all-CG creation which still manages to convey terrifyingly realistic presence and menace. The physics engine used in the rendering of the creature was expertly deployed; the beast never violated the rules of its motion and mass, moving with impressive speed and grace, but still conveying a daunting sense of weight and power. It phosphoresces with eerie beauty in the night, before striking with its long, whip-like tail, slicing through Vikings like a hot knife through butter. Best of all, as we learn more about its back-story, even the creature takes on a distinctly sympathetic dimensionality, without ever losing its brutality (and, again, the "Beowulf" reference is in evidence, as there are clear but non-slavish affinities with Grendel). The SFX team struck just the right balance between preserving the mystery of the thing's appearance, and refraining from annoyingly coy concealment.

Yes, it drags a bit in the third act. Yes, some of the "comic relief" was a bit broad. No there was not nearly enough of the great Ron Perlman as a rival tribesman. Yes, Kainan's Honorary Viking Costume was laughably silly.

But c'mon, it's Vikings vs. aliens. What're you expecting, King Lear?

[edited for late-night grammatical miscarriages]

UPDATE: Here on AICN are some neat making-of featurettes which do not appear on the US DVD, but are planned for inclusion on the upcoming UK Blu-Ray release (there is at this time no planned US Blu-Ray release for this film...and what's up with that?!). Some spoilers, but nothing too earth-shattering, and they do give a nice taste of the film (worth it just for Ron Perlman's brief, hilarious interview). Recently watched it again (before returning to NetFlix). Held up surprisingly well on re-watching, and even grew on me a bit.

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