In the opening scene of Cowboys & Aliens, outlaw Jake Lonergan (Daniel Craig) snaps to consciousness in the arid Arizona desert beaten, wounded, dirty, with no memory, and a futuristic bracelet locked on his forearm. Savor this scene … because it’s the first and only intriguing part of the entire movie.
Based on the 100-page Platinum Studios 2006 graphic novel created by Scott Mitchell Rosenberg and written by Fred Van Lente and Andrew Foley, Cowboys & Aliens takes us to the wild west in 1873, where Lonergan enters the small town of Absolution to piece together the mystery of who he is and where he got RoboCop’s bracelet. Along the way, he runs afoul of Woodrow Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford), a wealthy, cranky, mean-spirited cattle farmer and Civil War veteran who (like most everyone in Absolution) wants to see Lonergan dead.
But this bit of decorative drama comes to a quick end when marauding space creatures zoom out of the night sky in spaceships to abduct townspeople in the most stupidly dangerous, destructive, and inefficient way possible. With many loved ones now in the hands of the aliens, Lonergan and Dolarhyde form a shaky alliance and put together a posse to track the aliens to their home base somewhere in the desert.
Along for the ride is mild-mannered saloon owner Doc (a woefully underutilized Sam Rockwell), Preacher Meachum (Clancy Brown), Native-American guide Nat Colorado (Adam Beach), and beautiful and mysterious Ella (Olivia Wilde), who has a secret … a really stupid secret. They also bring a cute dog and a very young boy (Noah Ringer) on this very dangerous trip solely to be put in multiple scenes of contrived peril. Along the way, they encounter outlaws, Indians, and (of course) aliens in varying degrees of mayhem.
Listen, as an all-around nerd, a movie with this title, source material, and acting talent should pull me in like a moth to a bright light. Instead, what we get is an overproduced, overwritten (nine writers have their names on this film) mess of a film where the missed potential exists in quantities that can only be measured in the same way that geologists measure the passage of time.
The fatal flaw is that director Jon Favreau (Iron Man) treated the story far too seriously. In fact, more seriously than the graphic novel on which it’s based. The entire mash-up concept of aliens and cowboys doing battle is, at its core, wacky and ridiculous. Had this story been approached with a more gonzo, tongue-in-cheek feel then it could have been incredibly entertaining and fun. Instead, there’s little-to-no humor and more than a few scenes loaded with heavy-handed, insincere melodrama. Adding to that, the CGI for the aliens and their technology is good, but not great. And the action scenes are similarly adequate but completely lack any instances where you think to yourself “Okay, that was pretty cool.”
The actors also seem to sense that they’re in a movie that amounts to little more than a hyped summer clunker. Daniel Craig looks great in Western garb and I hope he gets another shot in the genre. Based solely on his demeanor and cold stare, he could be an easy successor to Clint Eastwood in the Sergio Leone films. But in Cowboys & Aliens, he does little more than look good. Ford snarls and grumbles through the entire movie without bringing much more to the mix. And everyone else is, well, just there.
The only audience that I can see really enjoying this film would be young boys who (rightfully) care little about most of the critical aspects discussed above. They just want tough guys, guns, and explosions … God love ’em. For anyone else, I recommend taking a pass on seeing it in the theater. For some, it may squeak by as a rental you don’t entirely regret.