Vikings vs. aliens in ‘Outlander’

By David Orlikoff

Few works are produced annually in the realm of art that can honestly be called original. This is due largely to the cumulative human history, which is both a blessing and a curse to its modern recipients and contributors.

On one hand, any art which aspires to be relevant beyond the mind of its creator should capture something universal of the world, in which case our history serves as both inspiration and framework. On the other hand, the universal quickly becomes passe when viewed in context of this vast amalgamation that forces artists to give their ideas context beyond their direct surroundings.

With all this in mind, Director Howard McCain’s Outlander is right in eschewing the further restrictions that a prescriptive genre would place on his work.

McCain opts for a merger of different ideas in his film, taking bits and pieces as he chooses. Defying genre is not a groundbreaking feat, but has proven successful.

With eight Oscar nominations, last year’s The Dark Knight is a comic-book movie bordering on drama. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is a mix of fantasy with drama up for best picture where last year’s winner, No Country for Old Men, was a crime-thriller drama and much more. These films can reject the pigeonholing and probably faulty categorizations that genre promotes by virtue of their independent strength as cinema. In the end, this proves to be a luxury which Outlander cannot afford.

Taken from the movie’s official website, “if you are a genre fan and aren’t put off by the very concept of blending sci-fi with a period-action-drama, then you will most likely have a good time.” Basically the plot is Vikings vs. sliens, but amid all the “period” and “drama,” something gets lost. Fanboys will forever argue over the execution of their various interests as they take form in new media, but in most cases, simply attaching the appropriate buzz word or catchphrase will be enough to garner a particular audience.

What middleschooler wouldn’t love to see Vikings vs. aliens? The same should be true for those more progressed in years yet with nostalgic, if not stagnant, taste. Because it is a more minor release, less from this crowd might actually go and see Outlander, but those who do will be disappointed.

The protagonist is an alien named Kainan, played by James Caviezel, who crash-lands in Norway during the Iron Age. The fact that his species is utterly indistinguishable from humans is easily forgivable as he begins to showcase his awesome technology. But as quickly as he gets his bearings, he is taken prisoner by Jack Huston as the Viking Wulfric and blamed for the razing of a nearby village. Kainan tries to explain that a dragon did it, but the Vikings are understandably skeptical. That is until he is vindicated and thrust into a position where only he can save this ancient civilization from the horrible beast.

The sci-fi elements are appreciated, but the accompanying back story is not. It is unclear how much of this is due to the acting and how much is the character, but the performance of Kainan by Caviezel is not one befitting of an awesome action hero. He is muted, allowing for little celebration by the audience. If one thing is clear about his character, it is that he genuinely enjoys crying and hates being awesome. Gunner, on the other hand, is a dual-hammer wielding, head-smashing beast skillfully played by Ron Perlman of Hellboy. The Viking King Rothgar is done a service by veteran John Hurt. Cliff Saunders plays Boromir the drunk and utterly fails as comic relief, leaving the job of balancing Caviezel’s somber cynicism squarely in the hands of Huston as Wulfric.

Both Huston and Perlman know the film in which they are acting. They have no aspirations for an Oscar nor do they intend to discover the souls of the fearsome Vikings they portray. They are content to be awesome, to split heads and scream profanity. Anyone who might think twice about calling that awesome is surely not the intended audience of this film.

The one female character, Freya, played by Sophia Myles, has a confusing upper class British accent, though she was probably never meant to be listened to. In a scrape with the dragon, she manages to retain just enough of her clothing so as to conceal all the really naughty bits before proceeding to get very, very wet.

Outlander is not without its share of fun, but in trying too hard and in doing sometimes too much, it betrays the happy-go-lucky action flick it promised fans. To succeed as a more serious film, it would first need to start making sense and secondly, cast a new lead.