I'm guessing most people haven't even heard of the film 'Outlander' and the reasons are evident from the facts. The sticky-fingered Weinstein Company didn't bother forking out any cash for advertising to begin with, and therefore, the movie vanished from theaters almost as quickly as the midday meals from Bob and Harvey's lunch boxes. I myself only became aware of its existence when I received a publicity e-mail for the DVD release a few months ago. While the brief synopsis pitting aliens against Vikings somewhat intrigued me, with no Blu-ray on the slate the film quickly faded from my memory.
Then as if it were some sort of sign, 'Outlander' found a way to Blu-ray after all -- distributed here in Canada by Alliance. Finally I had my opportunity to see monsters disemboweling old Norsemen (and vice versa) in my beloved high-definition. The movie itself is exactly as I had anticipated -- a typical sci-fi movie-of-the-week script just with fancier special effects and better acting (basically what I like to call a B-movie 2.0). Surprisingly, what hurts this release more than anything, though, is Alliance's poor mishandling of the disc… more on that subject later.
The story takes place in 709 A.D. just as a spaceship enters Earth's orbit and crashes into one of the fjords of Norway. Kainan (Jim Caviezel, 'The Passion of the Christ'), a humanoid traveler from a faraway world, believes he is the only survivor of the disaster. This soon changes when he begins to explore his surroundings and comes across a small village left in ruins. The devastation strikes a familiar chord, but before Kainan has a chance to investigate further, he's captured by Wulfric (Jack Huston), an elite warrior from the nearby Viking kingdom under the rule of King Rothgar (John Hurt). Not only do they hold Kainan responsible for the attack, they also fear that Gunnar (Ron Perlman, 'Hellboy'), the ruthless rival leader of the destroyed village, will blame them and retaliate, thereby igniting a tribal war. However, Kainan really knows the truth, as the carnage is the handiwork of the deadly beast his ship was transporting called the Moorwen. Kainan must work quickly if he's to gain the trust of the king's daughter Freya (Sophia Myles), prove his innocence to Rothgar, and unite the primitive people of the Iron Age against a common enemy more powerful than they could ever imagine.
The packaging for 'Outlander' has a quote from the Boston Herald touting the film as "'Beowulf' meets 'Predator.'" I'm not entirely sure if that's supposed to be a positive form of hype, but those three words pretty much sum up the plot right there. Writer/Director Howard McCain and co-writer Dirk Blackman basically take the epic tale and turn the character Grendel into an alien monstrosity with sharp pointy teeth and luminescent green blood flowing through its veins. The first glimpse of Shield Hall looks awfully familiar, and "King Rothgar" is just a typo of "King Hrothgar." All that was really missing here is a CGI Angelina Jolie skinny-dipping in a pool.
The special effects on the other hand are pretty good for the most part. Early on in the movie we don't get to see much of the beast attacking unsuspecting victims from off camera and severing limbs and other body parts. These scenes look a little hokey, but on the plus side most of the budget appears to have been dumped into the actual conceptual design of the Moorwen. The creature is partially a miniature version of Roland Emmerich's 'Godzilla' (likely since both were designed by Patrick Tatopoulos), and hardcore Dungeons & Dragons fans may notice some displacer beast in its genetics. I also thought the scenes on the Moorwen's homeworld were visually appealing. Of course, the effects still aren't quite in the A-list major leagues, but at least they're a significant step or two above most of the trash airing on sci-fi networks.
Lastly, I think the strong performances are what outright save this production from being a completely forgettable waste of time. Caviezel is solid as Kainan, and creates a character the viewers can care about and root for in the movie. Myles brings more complex layers than these types of roles usually have, and while the only other movie I've seen Huston in was 'Shrooms,' his Wulfric is charismatic and fun to watch. I don't even need to spend any time on Hurt and Perlman, as they are always reliable.
Ultimately, 'Outlander' isn't a half-bad creature feature, it's just that the execution could have been better. The acting is strong, but the story itself is a bit formulaic, predictable, and all too familiar. It would have been nice to have seen a few more plot twists and some originality in the film, but overall I'd say it would still make a decent rental if you're a fan of these kinds of movies.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Outlander' has been released on Blu-ray in Canada by Alliance. The disc comes in a standard blue keepcase. This particular Blu-ray is also region-locked and therefore will only function properly in Region A designated PlayStation 3s and standalone players.
I hate to say it, but Alliance really should be hanging their heads in shame for this release. Not only is the 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode problematic in a few places, some moron had the brilliant idea to crop the film's original aspect ratio of 2.35:1 down to 1.78:1 in this transfer. Why anyone in the film industry would continue to do this is beyond me (they did the same thing with 'Se7en' too). This isn't just embarrassing, it's downright incompetent. So Alliance, get your act together and assign someone with a positive IQ to take over these tasks before this dunce shoos away your customers forever.
Anyways, the well-lit scenes of 'Outlander' aren't too bad and are often on par with what we'd expect from high-def. The color palette is on the cool side, although it does suit the mood of the film. There's strong definition and depth, plus faces and clothing benefit from good texture and fine detail. A few times around the lake I noticed a very slight anomaly bordering the cast that may be a bout of edge enhancement or perhaps a side effect from the use of blue screen technology. The print also does have the odd speckle of dirt and a bit of artifacting occurs in some scenes.
The darker sequences are where the transfer takes a significant hit, and honestly I've seen better results from standard-definition sources. Black levels aren't always fully resolved and sometimes I had the impression of watching the movie through a sheet of wax paper. The worst case occurs inside the bear cave, and for me it was a real turnoff. All things considered, the transfer is a real letdown.
Alliance's proofreader must be the same genius who mangled the original aspect ratio since the back of the Blu-ray case indicates English Dolby TrueHD 5.1 audio when in reality the disc comes with an English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack. Of course this isn't really a big deal since lossless is still lossless, but this kind of simple oversight doesn't look very professional on the studio's part.
On the bright side, 'Outlander' actually sounds pretty decent. Dialogue is crisp, although some of the whispering sequences might be a touch too quiet if we're going to get nitpicky here. The musical score has a strong presence spanning the entire soundstage, plus the surrounds come alive with the clanking of medieval weaponry, shouting, and other various noises during the main action sequences. The track has plenty of bass, too--as there are a few explosions (yes, in 709 A.D.) and when Kainan's ship first enters the Earth's atmosphere in particular it feels like its passing right through you. All in all, it's a strong mix that sounds great.
The Blu-ray also includes Dolby Digital 5.1 tracks in English and French as well as optional French subtitles.
Alliance Blu-rays from Canada typically have been bare-bones releases and the packaging makes no mention of any supplements whatsoever, but 'Outlander' does in fact contain most--if not all--of the supplements found on the DVD. Yet even more masterful work from our favorite inept proofreader.
Since 'Outlander' is basically 'Beowulf' in a science-fiction disguise, the film isn't very original, yet it still manages to be mildly entertaining in its own way. Unfortunately, this Blu-ray is clear evidence of Alliance's lack of dedication and quality control. The supplements aren't even mentioned on the packaging, plus the wrong audio is listed, but the coup de grace is the totally uncalled for aspect ratio butchery. So until somebody comes out with a proper release--I can't in good conscience recommend purchasing this disc.
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.