Thursday, October 20, 2016

HubrisWeen 2016, Day 15: Outlander (2008)

Beowulf is one of those ancient stories that has been told and retold for hundreds of years, and like most such stories it has seen its fair share of re-interpretations, revisionist takes, and just plain rip-offs. To give a rough idea of just how many it has encountered, "Beowulf retold as a science fiction story" wasn't even a new idea when Outlander did it in 2008.

That being said, there is nothing inherently wrong with a well-worn tale, and I am always up to give a new Beowulf retelling a chance, even if it sometimes means getting burned.

And so it was that I came across this film when browsing the shelves of a closing Blockbuster (ask your parents, kids) maybe a year or two after its initial release and happily bought it sight unseen. Oh, I had heard of the film, but given that its theatrical release was of the "blink and you'll miss it" variety, I was going to have to wait for a video release.

We open in ancient Norway, which seems like an odd place for a spaceship to suddenly plunge out of the sky and crash into a lake. We get the sense that this crash was not simply due to equipment failure when we see one of its human occupants dragging the inert form of another to shore, and the limp man has a deep gash in his chest that tore right through his spacesuit. the first man, we'll later learn is named Kainan (Jim Caviezel), but you shouldn't worry about his friend's name because he quickly expires.

Kainan recovers a container that houses some sort of distress beacon, which he activates, as well as a computer. The computer informs him he is on Earth and then helpfully prepares a program that will beam the local language into his brain via his eye. It's an uncomfortable process and I was immediately enamored of the movie when his first word in "Norse" is, "Fuck!"

Kainan goes looking for either human settlements or evidence of whatever caused his crash. Well, he quickly finds both when he happens upon a village that has clearly been attacked and razed, but with no sign of any of the villagers. Unfortunately, as he continues on into the woods, he is ambushed by a warrior on horseback and quickly loses his advanced raygun in the scuffle. He holds his own for a bit but is quickly captured and taken to the hall of King Rothgar (John Hurt!). As a side note, it pains me deeply that the film misspells "Hrothgar" for no apparent reason.

At the hall, the king's daughter, Freya (Sophia Myles) is practicing her swordplay when her father interrupts to try once more talking her into marrying Wulfric, while she objects she will do no such thing. The two debate their stances on the argument via a bit of dueling. He feels she could reign in Wulfric's temper and make him a better king, while she objects that he shouldn't choose Wulfric as his replacement. Neither quite gains the upper hand, as Wulfric (Jack Huston) enters to announce that his scouting party found one of the villages belonging to a rival tribe, led by a man named Gunnar, destroyed with all the villagers missing. Rothgar is dismayed at that, since Gunnar is sure to blame them since Wulfric has long held a grudge against Gunnar for killing his father. However, the news that they captured a prisoner near the village is some comfort.

And then Wulfric comments that Freya will make a great queen, but no queen of his will play at swords. Boo, hiss--except, well, the movie oddly seems to take Wulfric's view. Mind you, I'm sure Freya's "warrior princess" outfit in this scene would have been utterly ridiculous if she kept it up the entire time, but after this sequence she dresses in far more typical "maiden" attire and spends most of her time serving the men. I will give the film that she'll prove herself a capable warrior later on, but that won't happen until the climax. It's just a bit off-putting to introduce her as a warrior woman and then immediately reduce her to little more than "potential love interest" and "glorified tavern wench" immediately afterward.

This is the only time you'll see Freya dressed like this, folks.
Well, Wulfric naturally takes much delight in seeing to it that Kainan is roughly interrogated. Kainan tries to tell them that he had nothing to do with the attack on the village and is merely a hunter. When asked what he was hunting for, Kainan points to a carved wooden dragon on the wall. That doesn't endear him to Wulfric, naturally.

Freya comes to tend Kainan's wounds, but he has managed to free himself from his restraints and when she notices he knocks her out before she can holler for the guards. Unfortunately, Kainan is not the only threat, for a sudden overwhelming smell of death washes over the compound and then the guards on the wall are picked off by something barely glimpsed. That something also kills the guard searching for Kainan in a maze of cloth. (Laundry? Animal skins? Beats me) Kainan sees the beast on the wall and they briefly make eye contact, sparking a certain familiarity in the beast's eyes.

Unfortunately, Kainan is promptly recaptured and it sure looks like he had something to do with the raid on the compound now, which Wulfric claims was Gunnar. However, to everyone else it seems clear it was something more unusual. Kainan is brought before Rothgar and explains that he comes from an island far to the North and his ship crashed on the shores on Norway. He knows what attacked the compound because it got on board his ship when they were bringing back bodies for a burial from another settlement it had destroyed, and once aboard it killed his crew. He claims that it is a creature called a Moorwen.

So Rothgar figures the outlander should be brought along on the hunt for the killer, which most are sure was probably a bear. Kainan stays shackled, however, since Rothgar trusts him as far as he can throw him--and it makes it easier for Freya to slug him in payback for striking her the night before. On the ride to a series of caves likely to be a hiding spot for a large predator, Kainan makes the acquaintance of the cheery bald fellow, Boromir (Cliff Saunders), who offers him some mead in a bottle made out of a small animal. Kainan finds it revolting, naturally, but Boromir takes a shine to him anyway.

While investigating the cave, the men find several signs that what they're dealing with is no bear--only to be immediately attacked by a bear. There's always got to be a Little Shark, right? Well, when Rothgar is set upon by the bear, Kainan leaps into action and saves the king by stabbing the bear with the old man's sword. Once the bear is dead, Rothgar uses his sword to sever Kainan's bonds.

At a feast that evening, in honor of slaying the bear, Kainan finally learns the name of the little boy who has been watching him in awe, Eric (Bailey Maughan). Kainan lets the boy play with the sword that killed the bear, per Rothgar's encouragement, and learns that the lad is a war orphan. Freya then overhears Boromir drunkenly bragging to a young woman about how he saw Kainan bravely save Rothgar from the bear. Naturally, this is Freya's, "First you want to kill me, now you want to kiss me," turning point.

However, the true highlight of the feast comes when Wulfric challenges Kainan to "shields." Delightfully, this turns out to mean a Viking Dance-Off. Essentially, a ring is formed in the hall with shields set upon the shoulders of the men to serve as stepping stones--and then Wulfric and Kainan must balance on the shields and also run and jump across them. Freya turns down a wager with her father, since no one beats Wulfric at shields, but even her father notes the look of affection she sends toward the outlander. Of course, she ends up being right when Kainan successfully copies Wulfric's acrobatic flip onto a shield Boromir is holding, only for the shield to break in half and spill him onto the floor.

Viking Dance-Off!
Unfortunately, the village falls under attack shortly after all the frivolity. However, this time the culprit is Gunnar (Ron Perlman!), a berserker who wields a heavy hammer as he leads his men in a raid on the village. However, the raid ultimately goes sourly enough that Gunnar and his men must retreat to the woods, with Gunnar first hollering back to Rothgar that he will pay for killing Gunnar's wife and son and not even leaving him their bodies.

Of course, Gunnar and his men quickly find out who really raided their village when the Moorwen attacks their camp. They run to the safety of Rothgar's compound, but several are mowed down with arrows before the guards realize it isn't a trick. And then the Moorwen helpfully shows itself, glowing brilliantly with bioluminescence before it runs back into the woods after snatching one of Gunnar's men with its prehensile tail.

Damn alien dragons and their overblown theatrics.
Well, it's time for an uneasy truce with Gunnar while Kainan instructs the villagers on how to build a trap to kill the Moorwen, since their swords, spears, and arrows haven't even scratched it. the plan is to dig a pit, fill it with whale oil, and use shields as footholds so he and Wulfric can play bait for the creature and trick it into falling into the pit where they will then set it on fire. During the prep, Kainan sees that Eric has somehow cut his own hair to mimic Kainan's and he pats the lad's head approvingly.

As he prepares for battle, Kainan decides to explain his backstory to Freya--though he couches it to her in language she would understand by talking as though he were from a seafaring tribe, we see the actual events in his flashbacks. His race have always been takers and conquerors, and when they found the planet of the Moorwens was ideal for them, they wiped the Moorwens off the face of it with nuclear fire, and then wiped out any who survived the initial blasts. In return for taking part in the slaughter, Kainan was given a home on the world with his wife and son. Except, when he was sent away from another mission, the one Moorwen they missed emerged from its cave and wiped out the settlement. Despite the creature's usual habit being to take bodies back to its lair for later eating, it left the bodies of Kainan's family, perhaps as a message.

Kainan accepts that he is culpable in all this, having willingly gone along with a genocide of clearly intelligent creatures. However, Freya feels he is taking too much blame for following his king's orders and presents him with her family sword, because she had always been told she would know the right man to give it to.

Well, the plan goes off pretty well in that the Moorwen does show up at the place they need it to for the plan to work. The fact that the village's Christian priest suddenly walks up and tries to exorcise the beast, only to get himself exploded for his trouble, also manages not to wreck the plan. Hell, they even get the beast to follow them into the oil pit and when Wulfric falls in, Kainan is able to fish him out before the flaming arrows cause the oil to explode (!) massively.

Unfortunately, there are two complications. One, nobody but Boromir noticed the village men suddenly disappearing by the well as the Moorwen was approaching, so it comes as quite a surprise when a baby Moorwen appears inside the hall where the women and children were placed for their safety. Two, the mama Moorwen shakes off being blown up way too easily, so now there are two Moorwens running loose in the village and one is on fire. In the chaos, Rothgar is mortally wounded by the baby when he comes to the rescue, and Gunnar gets casually beheaded by the mother when she decides to flee.

"All right, who put the chili peppers in my gym bag?"
Wulfric accepts the title of king and sends most of his people away, save for Boromir, Freya, and a handful of able-bodied men. Now that they know the well leads to the creature's lair, Kainan suggests they forge weapons made of a metal strong enough to hurt the Moorwens and head down into the well. Kainan knows exactly where to get the metal and heads off with Wulfric and Freya to retrieve it. Of course, said metal is currently at the bottom of the lake where his ship sank--which Wulfric questions with a mix of confusion and mockery--and Kainan has to dive down to retrieve it.

Unfortunately, the baby Moorwen pays them a visit and, after wrecking the boat, it takes Freya back to its lair. So now it's not just a mission to slay the beasts, it's a rescue mission. Good thing Boromir is able to forge Freya's family sword into a super badass one for Kainan to wield in the monsters' lair...

"I have the power!"
It must be said up front that Outlander is a very flawed film, both in the sense of some genuine defects and that it adheres a bit too closely to cliche to the point that it becomes rather generic. For starters, and this film is certainly no more alone in this flaw now than it was in 2008, this film really did not need to run 115 minutes long. There's a palpable sense that the film is trying too hard to be that long, too, which is baffling.

One of the places where the film feels as though it was painfully stretched against its will comes from the fact it has subplots and side characters that simply didn't need to be included. If you look at my synopsis up there, it would seem like Gunnar adds absolutely nothing to the story: that's because he doesn't. The only thing he adds to the film is the comforting knowledge that Ron Perlman got a paycheck.

Another flaw is that, frankly, there is more chemistry between Wulfric and Kainan than there ever is between him and Freya. It'd be easier to believe that they had decided to form a polyamorous triad than to buy that Kainan only has eyes for her--and it would certainly be a far more enjoyable way to resolve their vague love triangle. But, naturally, the film takes the boring route by killing the odd one out. It also doesn't help that despite being introduced as an accomplished warrior in her own right, Freya is reduced to a damsel in distress who must be rescued at the end.

That brings me back to the generic feeling the film has. Sadly, this even extends to the monsters. Don't get me wrong, unlike a lot of reviewers I think Patrick Tatopoulos did a fine job designing the creatures. However, while they're solid designs they're also very generic. Essentially they're just a bunch of common alien designs mashed into one, and a far cry from the unique creatures Tatopoulos designed for Pitch Black. The bioluminescence is a neat touch, except it doesn't really seem to make sense based on what we see of the Moorwen's natural habitat before it was destroyed.

However, in spite of all the issues this film has, I find it to be delightful. It's not so much that it transcends its limitations, so much as it has enough fun within them that I am able to forgive it. This isn't a revolutionary film or even a horribly memorable one, but it is an entertaining one and that is enough for me.

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