Review: Outlander

A troubled production, a limited release, a bizarre plot and no big names; most things worked against Outlander but with its nonstop action and original plot, it is one of the best Viking based fantasy movies ever made.

The story in Outlander Outlanderposter2takes place in the 8th century in Norway. A spacecraft crashes in a lake and out climbs an alien (that looks suspiciously like a human), called Kainan. Kainan sets up a homing beacon so that he can be rescued, but he is soon captured by Vikings, who believe he is responsible for killing and mauling a rivalling tribe. When the village where Kainan is being held captured is attacked too, he convinces them to let him join them in the battle, but that is easier said than done, since the lord of the rivalling tribe is returning and thinks Kainan’s tribe is responsible.

Influenced in part by the ancient poem Beowulf, about an “imported” hero who kills a monster who threatens a Viking king and his people, Outlander is much more an original story and filled by artistic liberties than other Beowulf movies. It should not be seen as an adaption but as a story that uses the original poem as its basic structure. There is no particular mother / son relationship involving a Grendel figure and the moorwen monster, and the hero is a space pilot from another planet (he may even come from the future). Some Beowulf elements are kept intact though, like King Hrothgar, his warrior Unferth and the general setting. This gives the movie free reigns to be a wilder and more unrestrained sci-fi / fantasy film, as it borrows from Beowulf when it needs to and uses its own fiction when required. It probably does not matter to the fantasy and action fan what parts are new and what parts are borrowed though. Outlander feels more like a movie standing on its own than just another version of a previously filmed story. Just like the 1999 Beowulf starring Christopher Lambert, it all becomes more interesting if you can give the story a twist. Additionally, a Viking setting is not often used for straight fantasy movies, as most Viking movies try to be historical epics. With all the mythology surrounding the Norse warriors (and farmers, fishermen, traders) and the (lack of) technology and civilization that existed back then, the Viking era is a good time and place to host a fantasy actioner, as good as if not even better than the often used Medieval times. Coming up with the idea of pairing aliens and Vikings is not only promising in terms of expecting lots of fun action, but in the world of fantasy movies it is an original and inspired idea that we have not seen too often before.

Outlander is also fantasy in the sense that it has very little to do with actual historical Vikings. Names, locations and a few other details are more or less acceptable but the Viking village, how they dressed, how they call themselves “Vikings” and their general appearance is exaggerated in order to beef the movie up. That’s quite all right, but it reinforces the feeling of the movie being more a general fantasy film than a Viking movie. Horned helmets are nowhere to be seen but there are many historical inaccuracies in the film, but with this particular movie that doesn’t reduce the entertainment that comes from everything else. Outlander is to Viking films what James Bond is to secret agents.

Outlander was not a success in theatres, making back only 13% of its $47 million budget. The reasons were many; it had no big name actors to draw attention to it, it was not part of a known franchise, and had no popular source material such as a book or a comic. It opened in only 81 theatres in the US, with very little marketing. The fact that Viking movies usually have a hard time penetrating mainstream markets didn’t help either. All this is a shame, because Outlander has many things going for it. Exotic locations, a great fantasy look, plenty of action and violence, and an original story. Let’s face it; the world is not into Viking movies, which is strange because high fantasy stories have been a hot potato for over 10 years now, since Lord of the Rings made cinematic comeback. Outlander is closer to traditional sword & sorcery movies than historical Viking movies, but maybe the characters had too long beards and were not pretty enough?

Whatever the case may be, Outlander is underrated as fun popcorn entertainment, and should be loved by anyone who liked The 13th Warrior or Fulci’s Conquest. It’s an expensive B-movie that doesn’t take itself seriously, and offers good actors, great production values and a bizarre plot that can’t go wrong. To become a true cult classic though, it needs more graphic gore (there is some, but not visceral enough) and more crazy characters, but with its nonstop action and original plot, it is one of the best Viking based fantasy movies ever made, feeling like a mix of Predator, Beowulf and Highlander.

Rated 8 of 10.

Directed by Howard McCain.

USA, 2008.