If you don’t think too hard about it, you’ll have a pretty good time. Conceptually novel but predictable as hell, Cowboys and Aliens is more mishmash than mash-up, offering enough old-fashioned entertainment to keep audiences in two hours of air conditioning and munching plenty of popcorn. Unfortunately, director Jon Favreau (Iron Man, Iron Man 2) and his team of writers don’t give their concept enough personality, surprises, or straight-up weirdness to achieve greatness.
But the elements are certainly there. There’s a violent stranger with a mysterious past (Daniel Craig), a Civil War colonel turned tyrannical rancher (Harrison Ford), his spoiled and reckless son (Paul Dano), the adopted native ranch-hand (Adam Beach), a mild-mannered shopkeeper (Sam Rockwell), and the gun-slinging beauty who knows more than she’s letting on (Olivia Wilde). Together, these genre misfits band together after aliens lay waste to their town and kidnap their loved ones. Before long, a gang of robbers and a tribe of Native American warriors are thrown into the mix, kicking off a rousing fight against the reptilian monsters who threaten all of humanity.
Favreau keeps a steady hand on the Western side of the story, employing ace cinematographer Matthew Libatique to maximize the grandeur of his New Mexico landscape. For the first 30 minutes or so, Favreau really drinks the genre in, composing iconic Western images, carefully establishing his narrative, and eliciting sturdy performances all around. It’s a promising start, with plenty of mystery, personal conflict and character. Ford seems to be having fun for the first time in years, and his final scene with Beach is surprisingly affecting. Craig persuasively pitches his hero somewhere between Clint Eastwood-style Man With No Name seriousness and Steve McQueen cool. He’s a great presence but doesn’t say a whole lot, mostly posing and squinting … and, when the action calls for it, beating the hell out of his opponents.
Cowboys and Aliens gets wobbly, however, when the aliens show up. When you see six writers credited to a story, you know you’re in for some choppy and sloppy drama, but they can’t even keep their own rules straight here. Not only are the aliens’ motives unconvincing and contrived, their strengths and weaknesses change depending on what the scene calls for. One minute they’re indestructible but blinded by light, the next they’re fearlessly galloping into the afternoon sun, only to get their asses handed to them by natives with spears. And, to indulge in a personal pet peeve, why do alien invasion movies always depict their extraterrestrial villains as bare-assed boogeymen? How is it that these otherworldly visitors have advanced technology like spaceships and energy canons but haven’t yet figured out how to stitch some clothing?
More tragically, Favreau’s excellent supporting cast is mostly wasted in underutilized roles. Seriously, how the hell do you back-bench actors like Dano, Rockwell, Keith Carradine, Clancy Brown and Adam Beach?
You can’t expect much from a film that brandishes such a blatantly on-the-nose title. Like Snakes on a Plane or Shoot Em Up, Cowboys and Aliens makes its B-movie intentions abundantly clear. And as far as high-gloss make-believe goes, it does the job. But with a little more inventiveness and wit, it might have been this summer’s equivalent to The Men in Black.