Everything about Outlander suggests an enjoyably awful cheese-fest of Uwe Boll proportions: It's a retelling of Beowulf in which a good alien helps some Vikings fight a bad alien, in a de-saturated, grungy setting that recalls such modern unabashed crapfests as Pathfinder, The Chronicles Of Riddick, and the Alien Vs. Predator movies. Surprise number one: It's smarter than it looks. Surprise number two: That doesn't entirely ruin it as an action film.
It starts in 709 AD, as a spaceship crash-lands in a Norwegian lake on the "abandoned seed colony" of Earth. Out crawls armored space-soldier James Caviezel, who quickly runs across some angry Vikings ruled by king John Hurt. The people of Hurt's walled town, Heorot—including cranky heir apparent Jack Huston and reluctant love interest Sophia Myles—think Caviezel must belong to the raiding party that just destroyed a nearby village. It's an uphill battle to convince them that the killer is actually a tentacled, glowing nasty that was aboard Caviezel's downed ship. It's harder still to fight the thing with primitive Viking weapons.
Outlander's plot follows Beowulf in its broad particulars, so little about it is surprising until the second half, which gets ambitious with Caviezel's backstory, takes the action off Earth for a while, and upgrades the film from cheap Xena look-alike to pricey Riddick look-alike. First-time screenwriters Dirk Blackman and Howard McCain (McCain also directed, Blackman also produced, and both collaborated on writing Underworld: Rise Of The Lycans), packs in the plot; that tends to slow down the action a good deal, but it also gives their film a welcome multi-dimensionality.
In particular, the side story involving Ron Perlman as a neighboring Viking leader with ties to and grudges against Hurt's enclave offers a chance at the kind of character development found in few films featuring grunting protagonists in fur loincloths. And as usual, Hurt's commitment and gravity greatly elevates his material—he plays King Kickass Viking-Dude as if he were King Lear. Ultimately, Outlander is an odd mishmash of genres with too much message and musing to be propulsive, and too much cornball monster movie to take seriously. But while the blend may not satisfy fans of pure action or pure drama, at least it gives them both a slightly new flavor to try.