The core concept, "aliens versus vikings" promises all kinds of extravagantly cheesy fun. Unfortunately, Outlander isn't all that much fun, largely because it isn't cheesy. It is, in fact, a motion picture in which the idea of a humanoid alien crash-landing on earth in Norway in 799 A.D. to fight the giant lizard-like beastie that hitched a ride on his ship after killing everyone he loves, with the help of the local Norse warriors, is played completely straight. That is frankly not the movie that I signed up for.

The alien in question is Kainan, played by James Caviezel, the lizard beastie is gigantic piece of nastiness called a Moorwen, and the Norsemen are standard-issue fellows with names like King Rothgar (John Hurt) and Wulfric (Jack Huston). The plot is nothing more or less than "Beowulf with a spaceman", so I hope you'll forgive me if I don't go into it any more.

Co-written by Underworld: Rise of the Lycans scribes Dirk Blackman and Howard McCain, the script is nothing better or more innovative than you'd see in any given Sci-Fi channel original, but the film's mid-tier budget honestly manages to save it from that dire fate. In fact, it's actually a pretty glossy, visually appealing affair, directed by McCain (allegedly after a deal with Renny Harlin fell through - thank the good lord for that) without a terribly great amount of distinction, but with a good eye to making the material rise above its mediocre fate. The production design by David Hackl recreates pre-medieval Norway in fine detail, Debra Hanson's costumes are sufficiently lavish and distinctive to stand above the sword-and-sorcery baseline, and the cinematography by Pierre Gill is more than just fine; in fact, Outlander boasts some very wonderful bleached-out visuals and great use of deep nighttime blacks that aren't particularly revolutionary of themselves, but are still satisfying in a way that can't be taken for granted in a cheapo science-fiction adventure like this. And the Moorwen itself is a minor triumph of alien monster design (thanks to Patrick Tatopoulos, the director of - get this - Rise of the Lycans, and the creature designer for the Underworld franchise), with its sharp tentacles and bulldog-from-Hell face, and the cool way it glows red to attract its human prey.

But, good looks are only half of it, and Outlander collapses severely as drama. I'm not sure entirely why that should be the case - no story that's a forthright knock-off of Beowulf can be an entirely unsuccessful heroic epic. There's just a certain something missing that would give the goings-on a bit more heft, depth, meaning, anything. Certainly, the screenwriters attempt to give it some bite by giving Kainan a fairly elaborate backstory involving terraforming and genocide, but the execution isn't so solid as the idea, and this tangent of the story ultimately falls apart like so many convoluted sci-fi subplots before it. In the end, Outlander is really just boring, and I do wish that I could come up with a better word than that; but it's much too serious to succeed at the gaudy spectacle its concept promises, and the narrative simply isn't compelling enough to support that level of seriousness.

This much is at least true: it's well-acted. I was just discussing recently how Jim Caviezel is a better actor than virtually all of the films in which he finds himself acting, and Outlander proudly carries on that tradition. If the backstory works at all, it does so almost exclusively because Caviezel has an appropriately haunted look in his eyes that gives Kainan a gravity entirely unearned by the script. Among the other cast members, John Hurt does his usual thing, the one where he treats a wildly hackneyed role like it was handed down by God for the edification of mankind. It's naught but a barbarian king role, but Hurt plays it with all kinds of proud nobility. Even Sophia Myles, as the requisite love interest and center of an unconvincing love triangle, get in on the act; I daresay it's the best performance I've ever seen her give, one of those anachronistic flinty women who's really more of a man than anybody that always crops up in movies like these, yet in this case she's entirely believable, thanks to an entirely persuasive performance from an actress who hasn't really ever done much of anything to convince the world at large that she's worth the time of day.

So well-acted, so well-crafted; you could almost convince yourself that you were watching a fine movie. But that screenplay, man, it just clangs like a death knell. There's really no rising action to speak of, just one event after another and a series of punctuated false crises that exist solely to keep some kind of tension onscreen before the moment that the big monster comes back into play. They're going to fight over the girl! - wait, no they're not. Another band of vikings is attacking! - nevermind. It's all just a waiting game until they finally go Moorwen-hunting, and without a doubt, the Moorwen-hunting sequence is a rousing bit of cinema, with crazy elaborate sets and a goodly amount of suspense and a well-earned bittersweet ending. But it's too little, too late for a film that manages to squander a seemingly can't-miss idea on a lifeless adventure schematic.