Back in the brutal cold of winter, when the promise of warm summer nights spent basking in the glow of countless blockbuster explosions and superhero battles felt like nothing more than a distant dream, a trailer for one of those far off event films played at my local multiplex. It was chock full of everything summer blockbuster audiences flock to: Directed by Iron Man’s Jon Favreau! Dazzling explosions! Spaceships! Gunfights! Laser Blasts! Seat-rattling sound effects! And most importantly, James Bond and Indiana Jones together in one movie! An epic western mixed with an alien invasion! Then, the title card came up – “Cowboys & Aliens”.
As the text faded from the screen, something about the combination of those words caused the audience I was with to chuckle and snicker. I knew right there that the mainstream audience wasn’t sold and the film was doomed. In a Summer already packed to the rafters with big-ticket sequels, giant robots, and more superheroes than you could shake a power ring at, this movie with the blunt yet high-concept title was going to get lost in the shuffle. I however, held out hope that it would still be an awesome combination of Daniel Craig pseudo “man-with-no-name” bad-assery and Alien-level extra-terrestrial menace. Unfortunately, while it’s heads and shoulders above similar Old-west meets technology disasters like Wild Wild West and Jonah Hex, Cowboys & Aliens only manages to be a mildly entertaining clash of clichés rather than a compelling mixture of genres.
The plot is set in motion when outlaw Jake Lonergan (Daniel Craig) awakens in the desert with no memory of who he is, and a strange alien weapon strapped to his wrist. He eventually makes his way to the town of Absolution, a small mining community that barely survives thanks to the cattle trade lorded over by the fearsome former war hero Woodrow Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford). After getting into some trouble in town, Lonergan runs into the mysterious Ella (Olivia Wilde), and is taken into custody by sheriff Taggert (Keith Carradine). However, before Lonergan can be delivered to Federal Marshalls, Dolarhyde rides into town and demands Jake’s head for robbing him of some gold bullion. At this point, alien spaceships appear in the night sky, snatching townsfolk with high-tension ropes. After the attack, Lonergan and Dolarhyde band together with the survivors to track down the aliens and rescue their captured loved ones.
With a title like Cowboys & Aliens, one would expect the aliens to be a unique and frightening presence in the film, but once again, we are subjected to generic grunting creatures in the ID4/Battle L.A./Cloverfield mold that do not communicate their motives or intentions to the humans at all. We know nothing about them other than what a key character reveals about them late in the movie in an out-of-nowhere exposition dump. They also happen to be inexplicably dim-witted for such an advanced species.
For instance, why does a technologically advanced alien race come to Earth and capture humans one by one with simple wires shot from their ships? Do they not have tractor beams or transporter technology? Why not simply fly over the town in the giant ship, capture as many humans as needed, then annihilate the rest of the entire town? Why engage the inferior humans in hand-to-hand combat on the ground when you could simply rain laser beams down upon them? I understand that in order to make it seem believable that a technologically inferior race has a fighting chance against the monsters some liberties must be taken, but these plot holes are just a little too nonsensical to overlook.
Despite being populated by stock western characters like the badass drifter, the vicious cattle baron, the honorable sheriff, the bumbling saloon owner, the beautiful prairie woman, the obligatory black-toothed outlaw gang, and of course a tribe of stereotypical hootin’ and peyote-pushin Apache Indians, The classic western aspect of the film is its strong point. But considering how ineptly handled the aliens are, unfortunately that’s not saying much.
Harrison Ford is eminently watchable as always, even though he lays the “surly cattle rancher” shtick on a bit too thick at times. Daniel Craig is captivating in his usual steely eyed way, dismantling humans and aliens alike with a graceful brutality. Sadly, it’s a one-note role that never develops much of an arc. Olivia Wilde, who manages to make a frumpy prairie dress look impossibly hot, spends most of the film spouting the exposition necessary to help Lonergan regain his memory and get the audience up to speed on his fairly predictable back story. Veteran faces like Clancy Brown, Keith Carradine, and Sam Rockwell do the best they can with the so-so dialogue that their old-west ciphers spout in between the explosions.
Jon Favreau continues to lose steam as a big summer blockbuster director. Continuing a trend that has only gotten worse since the second half of the first Iron Man film, Favreau drops the ball when it comes to delivering truly spectacular action sequences that have a sense of danger for the characters involved. Although Cowboys & Aliens is competently shot and has a decent narrative structure, it’s ultimately pulled down by clichéd dialogue and a flat screenplay that surprisingly took five screenwriters to produce.
Cowboys & Aliens promises an intriguing mash-up of two successful genres, but delivers only an adequate summer diversion, nothing more. The whole thing sort of stays on an even keel, shuffling along like a drifter on horseback who sticks to the safe main path and never deviates into unknown frontiers. It’s shame, there might have been more satisfying adventures off in the caves and valleys.