Delivering exactly the dose of classic western and sci-fi the title promises, director Jon Favreau (Iron Man 2) blends the two well-worn genres into the high-concept movie Cowboys & Aliens, a clunky and unimaginative summer blockbuster that will nonetheless satiate moviegoers looking for some undemanding entertainment. The film underwent a long and frustrating gestation that began all the way back in 1997 and as with most movies these days, it was adapted from a popular graphic novel. Featuring such luminaries as James Bond and Indiana Jones as well as a large number of all-star names both in front and behind the camera, the movie gets off to a really promising start. It’s just too bad the aliens had to drop in on the party.
Daniel Craig plays a mysterious man-with-no-name (initially) who wakes up in the middle of the desert, wounded, amnesiac and confused about that curious metal bracelet strapped to his left wrist. Before even uttering a single word, he promptly dispatches three bounty hunters waiting to ambush him and makes his way to the nearby frontier town where he immediately runs afoul of the local cattle baron Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford). But before the two can settle their score, alien spaceships appear out of nowhere and level the town, kidnapping some of the townsfolk in the process. Now, those left behind must form a posse to rescue the missing.
Despite the potential for a campy and humorous B-movie, Cowboys & Aliens is oddly set on playing itself out as straight and seriously as possible. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing because the first half of the film is nothing less than engrossing and proves that it could have worked really well as a straightforward western. The story starts with a bang, replicating the familiar nameless new stranger in town trope that can be found in so many westerns and it’s a joy to watch the characters being introduced and eventually coming together to form a posse. It’s blatantly obvious that the movie is heavily influenced by John Ford’s classic westerns and Favreau isn’t afraid of mixing in more deliberately paced scenes of outlaw and native encounters to build camaraderie among these cowboys between the big, shiny action set pieces.
Sadly, the movie opens in such a compelling manner that the second half pales in comparison. When a certain character is astoundingly brought back from the dead in a completely unexpected and head-shaking plot-serving device, the movie quickly goes awry, leading to a mindless cowboys versus aliens final battle and minimal exploration of an intriguing concept that has 19th century people being invaded by extra-terrestrial creatures. But with no less than 5 writers and 16 producers involved (including Ron Howard, Brian Grazer and Stephen Spielberg), one shouldn’t be surprised that the script felt awkwardly pieced together. More perplexing however is that a movie with such a fun title as Cowboys & Aliens could be so unambitious and lacking in surprises and imagination.
Nonetheless, the star-studded cast keeps this afloat. Craig is well-cast, effortlessly commanding the screen as the stoic leading man with a mysterious past. Watch out for an hilarious running gag about Dolarhyde’s weaselly son (Paul Dano) getting repeatedly abused by Craig’s character. Meanwhile Ford is fun to watch, basically reprising the same type of role he played in last year’s Morning Glory: a mean, ruthless old man who progressively is revealed to have a more gentle, fatherly nature underneath it all.
A group of great actors provide some much needed gravitas to the movie in supporting roles, including Sam Rockwell as the good-natured saloon owner, Keith Carradine as the well-meaning town sheriff and Clancy Brown as the local preacher. Sadly, none of the characters in the movie are more than two-dimensional. And the comely Olivia Wilde, poor girl, can do absolutely nothing with Ella Swenson, a nearly unplayable character which is burdened by absolutely terrible dialogue and clunky exposition.
The pleasing cinematography from Matthew Libatique makes excellent use of the stunning New Mexico locale, capturing the majestic and moody atmosphere of the westerns of old. The action sequences are enjoyable especially the War of the Worlds-like night attack on Main Street while the design and execution of the computer-generated aliens is solid albeit a bit generic. The creatures never really inspire much fear beyond being simplistically portrayed as evil and in essence, this is symbolic of the movie’s main shortcoming: The cowboys could have done without the aliens.
I can’t help but think this would have worked so much better as a true western. Nonetheless, you could do a lot worse this summer than the relatively pleasant Cowboys & Aliens.
Notes: Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of western and sci-fi action and violence, some partial nudity and a brief crude reference, 118 minutes.