Epic indie flick Outlander hits theaters tonight, and I won't mince words. It rules. Rarely have I seen a monster movie that punches both my "cool alien" button and my "kickass swordfight" button.
I won't pretend to you that Outlander is the kind of movie that will transform your soul and fill you with a new appreciation of what it means to be human. Go see Wall-E or 2001 if you want that, OK? Tonight go to see the movie that is so badass, so unapologetically fun, that the characters actually fight a battle with swords forged from the hull of a spaceship.
Look me in the eye and tell me that you haven't at some point dreamed of a giant fucking sword made from indestructable space material. Well, maybe it's just me.
The story behind the alien smackdown in Outlander is suprisingly fresh and original. It takes place in eighth century Norway, at the height of Viking civilization, which is about to be menaced by a creature who looks like something out of Norse mythology. It turns out that Earth is a former seed colony of an interplanetary civilization - and that civilization has just returned to our planet with a vengeance. Humans' space-going counterparts have been terraforming a planet filled with glowing, dragony creatures called the Moorwen, and unfortunately they decided to do it via genocide and fire.
But the Moorwen strike back, killing many of the colonists. And one of the extremely pissed Moorwen has survived by stowing away on a ship piloted by our hero Kainan (Jim Caviezel), which he's flying home to bury the bodies of his dead family. His stowaway has other plans, however, and after a scuffle we never see his ship crashes in a lake near two Viking villages. Now it's Kainan vs. Moorwen on an alien world - Earth. What follows is an occasionally slow, but mostly exciting and gorgeous exercise in world-building.
I think what I was most impressed by, aside from the generally excellent special effects on the monster, was the way filmmakers Howard McCain and Dirk Blackman show us how easily a space-traveler fits into the world of the sea-faring Vikings. Unlike many of their medieval contemporaries, the Vikings had mastered the art of traveling hundreds of miles over the sea, and often crossed the ocean to countless islands (including England) for raiding and colonization. So when Kainan first encounters the Viking band he eventually teams up with, he tells them the truth about his situation. He says he was on his way to an outpost when his ship crashed, carrying a "dragon" that had destroyed his village.
Because the Vikings understand the idea of ships traveling great distances, they accept his tale - though of course they think he's traveled the ocean rather than from the stars.
Most of the movie is, in fact, about Kainan becoming a Viking. I think probably this whole middle section of the movie, where the Vikings fight a bear and a rival gang, is what has put many critics of the film off. They're looking for something like Aliens when in fact McCain and Blackman have explained that the movie is much more along the lines of Beowulf or Lord of the Rings. If it weren't for a few scenes where Kainan uses high tech equipment from his ship (including making the swords at the end), and some flashbacks to the Moorwen world, this could really be a Viking epic with a dragon instead of an alien.
But the fact that the dragon is an alien, and that the man the Vikings call "outlander" is in fact a space-traveler, lifts Outlander head and shoulders above your typical D&D ripoff tale. This is an action-adventure that shows how some dangers transcend both space and time. And it reminds us that space operas have a lot in common with medieval epics.
There are also some surprisingly good performances here, too. As Kainan's rival and friend Wulfric, Jack Huston is funny and lithe (and looks good in fur); and John Hurt plays King Rothgar with cool gravity. Sophia Miles plays Freya, Rothgar's sword-wielding daughter, who manages to kick major monster ass while wearing a dress that will be all the rage at the next SCA gathering near you.
Of course there are groan-worthy moments - it's a freakin monster movie. There's a scene of drunken Viking revelry that goes on waaaay too long, and the movie does admittedly take a bit too long to get down to the Viking vs. alien action. But once it does, you'll be beating your chest and demanding another barrel of the monster mead this flick serves up.
The point is that if you want a great example of the alien smackdown genre, Outlander will please the hell out of you. It's a fresh, original take on a timeworn topic that's been ruined by many giant Hollywood movies with budgets four times bigger than Outlander's. And did I mention the giant sword? Made out of a spaceship? Holy crap I love this movie.