Lego the past
I’ll be honest: When I was 10, I would have been into Outlander. That sounds uncomplimentary, but hang on. It’s a good age, 10. Perceptive, even.
Consider: The great film editor, sound designer and unborning cinema philosopher Walter Murch once said, “As I’ve gone through life, I’ve found that your chances for happiness are increased if you wind up doing something that is a reflection of what you loved most when you were somewhere between 9 and 11 years old.” This from a guy who’s won three Oscars, including one for the job he invented for himself on Apocalypse Now.
I’m not saying that Walter Murch had anything to do with the making of Outlander (unfortunately), or that I did, but his deep awareness of vocational beatitude, especially where movies are concerned, seems instructive: Maybe the best way for me to evaluate the film at hand is by asking whether, in a good way, it made me feel like I’m 10 again.
It did, sort of.
At 10, I would receive with interest the tale of a traveler from another world who crash lands in the fjords of Norway during the time of the Vikings and cautiously joins forces with them to battle the huge glowing monster that has escaped from his shattered spaceship. I would not have known or cared to tease out Outlander’s bastardized borrowings from Beowulf and umpteen cowboy-drifter Westerns, although everybody in it having English accents would be taken to mean it must be smart, and if I’m into it, then so am I.
All I’d really require would be a few no-nonsense Viking warriors, a predatory alien just reminiscent enough of the villains from other space-monster movies, like Predator and Alien, and one bad-ass astronaut for a hero—from whose courage, rugged individualism, fencing skills and insouciant sexual charisma I would infer how to behave when I grew up. Well, all right, Outlander: That’s check, check and check.
As to this dude’s actual character, flashbacks hazily imply that he’s both a decent family man and a genocidal imperialist; surely my decade-old mind would opt for the benefit of the doubt. Anyway, he’s played by Jim Caviezel, at least well known enough from his portrayal of Jesus in The Passion of the Christ to go along here with a relatively subtle throwaway joke about early Christianity, but still obscure enough to carry himself with a slightly abject “Yeah, they probably wanted Christian Bale” quality—which, whether real and intended or entirely projected from me, actually works to the film’s advantage.
Poor outlander. He’s got a gizmo that can figure out and download the local language right into his brain, but making friends and fitting in—not to mention killing and not being killed by that creature—is pretty much up to him.
To his good fortune, he arrives just in time to find the yummy daughter (Sophia Myles) of the wise local king (John Hurt) rejecting her cocky, pretty-boy suitor (Jack Huston); if the outlander can hang in with her for a few rounds of fisticuffs and win her people’s mead-chugging, sword-schwinging respect, she’s all his. Less luckily, his killer cargo has taken the opportunity to devastate a neighboring village, thereby inflaming a feud between the king and his own skull-smashing rival (Ron Perlman).
What, my precocious mind might have wondered, does Outlander teach us about conflict resolution? At 10, I could get behind films in which men settle their differences by saying things like, “Let’s go kill this thing—together,” and then build enormous indestructible swords through a combination of iron-age bladesmithing and space-grade metallurgy.
Outlander was written by Dirk Blackman and director Howard McCain, who together also share credit for writing the forthcoming Conan, a new chapter in the saga begun with Conan the Barbarian right about when I was in the Murch-range sweet spot. Had I any clue about that film’s writer-director, John Milius, being a hard-right gonzo gun nut, or its husky hero’s later successful quest to become my governor, well, maybe I would have preferred to stay young.
So trust me on this, for I speak with the wisdom of age and of the ages. By certain quite exacting standards, Outlander comports itself with honor. To be really cool, all it needs is a tie-in with Legos.