Last Saturday morning I received a very odd phone call. It was just before 10:30, and I had been awake for all of five minutes. To say that I’m not much of a morning person is like saying Pol Pot had a tiny problem with people being alive. I answered my phone to find that it was a friend relaying a question from a third party. He wanted to know if there was any mainstream movie that I enjoyed unironically and had no nostalgia cache. This was an odd question on the face of it, but what compounded the weirdness was that the background noise made it sound like they were calling from a dinner party even though both of these people live in my city. It felt as though I was receiving a phone call from the future, one in which I had turned into a Bizarro Armond White, despising everything big and crowd-pleasing in favor of tiny art house films about being a transgender lesbian paraplegic in war torn Helsinki. I stammered out an answer (the Lord of the Rings trilogy – the most visible DVDs in my collection from where I was sitting), which was deemed acceptable, and the conversation ended. Still baffled at how my friend got his hands on a time machine, I realized that the question was likely prompted by the fact that I hated both Avatar and True Grit, loudly, publicly and to anyone who would listen. If I hate both big-budget spectacle and period dramas by indie darlings, what’s left?
The modern studio system is entirely based on making gobs and gobs of money. Not mere profit, and this is important, but insane, boy-band level money. The business model has become so entrenched that the very survival of studios demands that nearly every picture they make needs to have the potential to make enough filthy lucre to swim through like Scrooge McDuck. For this to happen, the film must appeal to all four quadrants of modern marketing technique, split up in to older men, older women, young men and young women. Movies like this inevitably feel calculated and cynical, lacking the divine spark of creative insanity that characterize films created out of some form of love no matter how misguided. Thus, the modern studio system generally makes good movies only by accident.
The side effect of the studio system is that the mid-budget genre picture is almost entirely dead. There was a time not too long ago when weird movies littered the landscape like bleeding porn stars on Charlie Sheen’s floor. This was called the ‘80s. These films lacked the self-indulgence of the worst excesses of ‘70s navel-gazing, turning instead to lean 95 minute stories about dragonslayers and cyborgs. Filmmakers with pulp-ready names like Walter Hill, George Miller, John Carpenter and Chuck Youngblood (fine, I made one of those up) annihilated the walls between genres, churning out cult classic after cult classic. At the time, they seemed to be in a contest over who could make the most insane film and the only prize was the continuing adulation of people like me. (Hang on, let’s do one about a redneck who fights Chinese ghosts! No, wait, how about a future where gangs dress like baseball-playing clowns! I got it, how about one where it’s the ‘50s, only it’s the ‘80s and we end with a climactic sledgehammer fight!) But there’s no swimmable money in cult classics, so fuck those guys. Because I grew up on films like this, these are the kinds of things that speak to me. So when I heard that there was a highly stylized adaptation of Beowulf where Vikings fight aliens, I signed right the fuck up.
I could really just stop right here. Outlander is about Vikings fighting aliens. The only way that gets any better is if someone manages to cram some lesbian ninjas or skydiving sasquatches in there. So what are you waiting for? Rent it already.
Outlander won me over immediately by opening with nearly the same shot as my favorite film of all time: a damaged spaceship careening toward earth. The ship crashes in a Norwegian lake in 709 AD, and the only survivor is Kainan (James Caviezel, so yes, Alien Jesus kicks the shit out of a dragon). He accesses his computer, which labels his location as “Earth – Abandoned Seed Colony.” Right there, the film is making the revolutionary assumption that the audience isn’t composed entirely of nitwits.
Kainan falls into an extremely uneasy alliance with this group of Vikings, including King Hrothgar (John Hurt), his ridiculously hot daughter Freya (Sophia Myles) and hotheaded Wulfric (Jack Huston). They’re worried about some guy named Gunnar, a local chieftain with a grudge. A lot of the early parts of the movie obsess about this Gunnar person. It gets to the point where, unless Gunnar is played by Ron Perlman and bashes people’s brains out with two giant fucking hammers, it’s going to be a letdown. Fortunately, Gunanr is played by Ron Perlman and bashes peoples brains out with two giant fucking hammers. It’s exactly as awesome as it sounds.
The performances are much better than the film has a right to expect. James Caviezel’s odd detachment is used to good effect, reinforcing his status as alien and outsider. John Hurt serves much the same purpose as Alec Guinness in Star Wars, the seasoned veteran providing gravitas to potentially ridiculous situations. Jack Huston will not be instantly recognizable to viewers, but he plays Richard Harrow on Boardwalk Empire, a.k.a. the enforcer missing half his face, a.k.a the best reason to watch Boardwalk Empire. He has the same screen presence here, looking like a badass Russell Brand and acting like a young Viggo Mortensen.
Kainan is there hunting dragon, but the Vikings don’t believe him until the actual dragon shows up and starts eating people. The dragon in question, an alien beast called a moorwen, is a triumph of monster design. A creature feature like this one lives and dies on how good the creature looks. Often, CG characters lack the solidity of practical FX, but the moorwen dodges this with intelligent use: the camera seldom lingers on it and when it does so, the moorwen is in partial darkness. The beast is also bioluminescent like a deep sea fish, which allows its presence to be indicated without showing it, and plays to the strengths of the medium. I will often give a mediocre movie a pass simply because I like the creature. In this case, a great creature elevates an already good genre picture.
The moorwen is more than a simple monster with a yen for devouring sexy virgins. It gets a compelling backstory that transforms it into a tragic villain motivated by grief and revenge. And eating piles of corpses. None of that is made up.
Thematically, the film is about patriarchal responsibility as distinct from masculine power. Hrothgar serves as a metaphorical father to both Wulfric and Kainan and a biological father to Freya. Hrothgar spells out the true purpose of a king to Wulfric early in the film, explaining that it’s more about responsibility than power. Heavy is the head that wears the crown, in other words. Kainan lost his family, including a young son, to the moorwen, and adopts an orphan boy as surrogate son. Kainan takes responsibility for hunting the beast because there’s no one else to do it. Even the moorwen has parental motivations.
Defeating the moorwen requires both the high technology of the alien and the savagery of the Viking. Metaphorically, it demands an Orphean journey into hell, followed by a rebirth and baptism in the culture of the barbarian. On the upside, the reward is a hot redheaded proto-feminist whose sapphire blue eyes are the second most impressive CG effect in the film.
But we don’t watch a flick like Outlander looking for deep meaning and subtext. We look for a man versus beast, we look for colorful sidekicks, we look for great action and a great monster. Outlander succeeds on every front. If there’s a fault in the film, it’s that it’s about ten minutes too long, but I won’t quibble. After all, this is a movie in which an alien warrior goes to Iron Age Norway to hunt a dragon. I thought they didn’t make movies like this anymore. I was wrong, and it’s an wonderful feeling.