This is a B-movie.
It doesn’t matter how much money was put into it, it doesn’t matter it’s got big name stars and CGI beasties. This is a film in which Vikings fight of an alien dragon, sticks to using as few locations as possible and relies heavily upon spectacle. It’s a B-movie. It just somehow managed to get a big budget.
You’ve got to have that in mind when going to see Outlander if you want to enjoy yourself.
The basic outline is, well, as stated above: Vikings vs. aliens. To elaborate a bit though the film quickly establishes a few points to get a lot of things out of the way. Earth is a failed colony of a spacefaring human empire. A planet which had humans land on it and try to establish a base of power but was abandoned, as a result the populace regressed technologically and lost a lot of their knowledge. In 709 AD the survivors of another human colony crash land on the world killing everyone but its pilot Kainan (Jim Caviezel) and a human hating monster which stowed away on-board it escapes. As the monster rampages through Norway, slaughtering villages, he tries to unite the nearby Viking factions against it even as they blame one another and even him for the murders.
The big problem is this is effectively info-dumped onto the audience within the first minute. While it’s good the film didn’t just resort to an openly monologue to tell the audience all this, it’s incredibly jarring and the narrative doesn’t flow well. This goes for a hell of a lot of the initial establishment, ranging from talks about the state of one Viking village to the mentality of each character – it’s told so directly and with so little subtlety it’s astounding they didn’t reshoot it.
Just about any fight in the first act has massive numbers of edits to try and cover for visual problems. These range from trying not to let the audience see something painfully obvious or to hide the John Hurt holding his own in a sparring match against someone half his age while delivering exposition. It’s very distracting and occasionally verges upon being as bad as the dizzying blurred mess of an opening fight in Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows.
This, combined with Outlander telling its audience absolutely bugger all about its hero until the third act, makes it a very difficult to enjoy during at first. It only really picks up when the plot stops frantically leaping about and slows down enough to give its actors a chance to properly talk rather than fight, run or dump exposition.
When Outlander does start to use its cast properly, it begins to become enjoyable and you start to see why each actor was hired to play his/her role. Along with this is the added menace of the alien monster, the Moorwen, which is never directly seen but constantly lurks nearby. It’s not done as effectively as in, say, Predator but its constant presence and initial attacks do result in some fairly tense scenes. We only see it in fleeting moments, some P.O.V. shots and from its kills so when it finally turns up it’s given much more impact than just having hit turn up and kill people.
What helps to boost the quality of the scenes between fights is the actors. When the film slows down enough to let them act, the cast give consistently good performances. One of the film’s best moments comes not from the battles but having Kainan speak about the events prior to his arrival on earth. Even Ron Pearlman, who is only present for about ten minutes, is putting as much effort into this film as he does in Hellboy; and it’s what really makes the this worth watching. Of course, this is a film which has ”vs.” in all but name so any scenes relying upon acting are ultimately secondary to the battle scenes. How are they? Varied.
The ones during the opening have already been mentioned as badly shot messes, but even a few of the later ones don’t stand out all that well. They tend to be very brief, only lasting a minute or two, and the only satisfying fights turn up in the film’s second half and that’s partially because they didn’t always have people fighting the monster. The big problem seemed to be the Moorwen’s lack of physical presence in spite of its size, with no heroes properly getting to grips with it - a problem which wasn’t helped by the sub-par CGI.
A few times, especially during the sequence where Kainan’s ship crashes, the effects look like something from Lost in Space. The 1998 film, not the 60’s series, the CGI is not that bad. There’s something strange about the way the CGI’d objects move and fit into backgrounds, whenever any object is placed against bright light in any way it suddenly looks fake. Like it’s been very crudely overlaid onto each scene rather than properly rendered. Thankfully almost every time the Morwen appears it’s at night with very little light illuminating it, so it’s more an irritation than a major detractor to the film’s quality.
Final verdict- Outlander, is clunky, has a very weak beginning, some dubious CGI but once the ball gets rolling it becomes a very entertaining romp. Nothing overly taxing on your brain but with strong acting, a brutal alien and some surprisingly good characterisation it makes for a fun monster film. It’s flawed to be certain but it proved to be a much more fun experience than this year’s latest fantasy “vs.” Underworld Awakening.