Perhaps in response to this, the filmmakers have played the premise straight, but in making sure the movie wasn’t too jokey, they managed to remove all the fun as well. The film delivers on its title, but does so in a surprisingly inert manner, resulting in a perfectly decent movie that has some individual elements that are impressive but never add up to anything memorable.
Daniel Craig plays an amnesiac cowboy who wakes up in the middle of the desert, barefoot and injured but wearing a weird metal bracelet that is locked on his arm. He is a man with no name because he doesn’t remember it. After traveling to the nearby town of Absolution, Craig’s character discovers he is named Jake Lonergan, but unfortunately he discovers it from a wanted poster, and finds out that he’s an outlaw who held up a stagecoach.
The first quarter of the film is a fairly decent straight western, even if a lot of it feels familiar. It’s a sort of half-assed version of Rio Bravo, with Craig having a confrontation with Percy Dolarhyde (Paul Dano), the spoiled son of Col. Woodrow Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford), a cattle baron whose business keeps the town financially afloat. After Percy accidentally shoots somebody, he is arrested. The colonel and his men come to town to get his son back, by force if necessary, which is when the aliens attack. After the aliens make off with a lot of the townies, Lonergan and Dolarhyde band together and set off after the aliens.
The actors are all fairly fun. Ford actually seems engaged by the material here, which is something of a rarity of late, but the film kind of hamstrings his character. He is introduced as a pretty rotten bastard, but before you know it he is imparting fatherly wisdom to not one but two characters.
Craig makes a very credible Mysterious Stranger, who is better suited to shooting people than having conversations with them, but having both of your main characters be monosyllabic and gruff doesn’t do the movie any favors. The film also sets up a lot of animosity between Lonergan and Dolarhyde early on, but it vanishes almost immediately.
The film has a great supporting cast, filled with craggy folks like Keith Carradine, Clancy Brown and Walton Goggins, who would have steady work in westerns if more than two were made per year. Olivia Wilde is appropriately otherworldly as a mysterious woman named Ella who serves as Craig’s love interest. Adam Beach is surprisingly good in an underwritten role as a Native American who is a surrogate son to Col. Dolarhyde, possessing most of the courage and decency that Percy lacks (although I think naming somebody Percy almost guarantees that he will be worthless).
The always-great Sam Rockwell is, yes, great as Doc, the town doctor and saloon keeper who came west to find his fortune and failed to do so, and now finds himself stranded in a landscape best suited for a harder man than he. Now he has to learn how to fight if he wants to have any hope of getting his wife back from the aliens.
I like a lot of the ideas the film lays out, such as the way the characters have no conception of life on other planets, so they call the aliens “demons,” or the awe the townsfolk feel when they see the spaceships approaching, or the way lawmen, townsfolk, bandits and Indians—people who are normally at each other’s throats for any number of reasons—band together against a greater enemy.
All of these are interesting ideas, but the film rarely follows through on any of them in a way that fully exploits their dramatic potential.
Part of that may be due to the film’s script, which, between story and screenplay credits, had no fewer than eight people work on it, including Lost’s Damon Lindelof, Patch Adams writer Steve Oedekerk and the Transformers and Star Trek duo of Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci. All these voices seem to have prevented any real vision from making it into the movie.
Instead, we get warmed over west ern and sci-fi tropes that are done capably enough, but never really excite us. The genres never come together in ways that surprise or engage us. It just feels like a mediocre western and a mediocre sci-fi film were slapped together.
There are lots of little logic problems in the script, such as the fact that the characters’ plan in the climactic battle involves sending the guy with most effective weapon away from the main fight. Also, the aliens snatch up humans, supposedly to “study our weaknesses,” but they seem to be pretty successful with just blowing up everything in sight.
While the design for the aliens is fairly creepy, even though it resembles the creatures in Super 8 and Cloverfield quite a bit, the aliens have the single stupidest evolutionary adaptation that I can remember seeing in a movie. Their chest cavities open up to reveal a second set of arms, which are pretty useful for fine manipulation but also leave all their squishy bits open to the air.
Like much of the rest of the movie, the direction by Jon Favreau (Iron Man) is capable, if uninspired. With the help of cinematographer Matthew Libatique (Black Swan), Favreau has captured some great western scenery, and his action sequences are huge enough, but he never manages to make the film cohere into anything exciting enough to make up for its lackluster script.
Cowboys & Aliens is an agreeable enough film. I never found myself hating it, I just didn’t care much. It isn’t aggressively bad, but it also never comes together into anything particularly memorable. Certain performances or camerawork or action scenes can be appreciated on their own, but the movie they reside in never quite manages to engage the audience.
Carey Norris writes about film for Birmingham Weekly. Send your comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.