If ever there were a poster child for truth in advertising, Cowboys and Aliens would certainly be in the running for the job. Here is a movie with cowboys, doing the sorts of western things cowboys do in the movies. Then there are aliens. Suddenly, our western is now a sci-fi western, and not in the Star Wars space western vein, either. This is a film thoroughly grounded on Earth, though not in reality as we know it. In this reality, men with six-shooters, knives, and spears are able to ably fight massive, gnashy aliens with fighter jets and mechanical doohickeys. Know that this is the reality you'll be subjected to in Cowboys and Aliens, one of absurdity, borderline idiocy, and occasionally absurd, idiotic fun.
The cowboys of the equation are played with ever-escalating amounts of grimacing by Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford. Craig opens the film in the desert, shoeless, hatless, and with a mysterious metal bracelet hitched to his wrist. He doesn't remember his name, nor where he came from. However, he quickly discovers that folks in the local town of Absolution, Probably New Mexico have a good idea who he is. Ford's sneering cattle baron, Col. Woodrow Dollarhyde, knows him as Jake Lonnegan, a no-good stick up artist responsible for some missing gold of the old Colonel's. And when Lonnegan and Dollarhyde's son (Paul Dano) have a brief dust-up in the middle of town, both end up in the back of a wagon headed for Santa Fe and the federal marshals, thus leading to a stand-off between the local law and Dollarhyde's men.
And then, fucking aliens happen. Just like that, alien jets swoop in and begin laying waste to the tiny town, while periodically pausing to scoop up town folk like one of those claw-machines you see at arcades and particularly lousy chain restaurants. And just when it looks like everyone is doomed, that mysterious bracelet comes to life, revealing itself as a magical alien gun that's pretty good at shooting down fighter jets. Never mind that no one in this era has ever seen a jet, or really anything that flies that isn't a bird, but apparently Lonnegan is a quick study.
Thus sets in motion a rescue operation where Lonnegan and Dollarhyde must set aside Differences and team up for the Greater Good. They're joined by Dollarhyde's trusty Indian tracker (Adam Beach), a cowardly doctor who desperately wants to rescue his wife (Sam Rockwell), a pleasantly alcoholic preacher (Clancy Brown), a plucky young boy out to save his grandpa (Noah Ringer), a feisty mutt that always knows when aliens are around (uncredited) and a distant, ethereal woman who seemingly knows more about this sudden alien invasion than she's letting on (Olivia Wilde). All they need is a clown, a cripple, a ghost, and a sassy robot, and they'll have the ultimate alien-hunting team.
I suppose I can't chide Cowboys and Aliens too hard for being ridiculous. After all, this is a year in which we have watched alien robots who are also cars attempt to use magical teleportation to drag a planet through a manufactured black hole, militant aliens battle the Los Angeles freeways and Aaron Eckhart's chin for control of our planet, and alien Viking gods crash to Earth to fight about stuff because of reasons. I guess that's also part of my problem with the film. This is yet another alien invasion movie in a year brimming with alien invasion movies. That's not the filmmaker's fault, but while this is a reasonably solid alien invasion film, it doesn't do much to stand out, outside of its genre mash-up elements.
And this genre mash-up doesn't even include any particularly clever touches, either. The script, which includes more writing credits than some sections of the Bible, has little ambition when it comes to playing around with its various genre conventions. The writers essentially just barf a bunch of aliens into an Old West setting, stand back, and see what happens. What happens is a series of goofy-as-hell scenes involving throughly chewed-up dialogue, copious amounts of laser-and-gunfire, and presumably scary aliens that are far more grody than ghastly.
This is a brief aside, but this film, along with other recents in the genre, leads me to a question: is it just too hard to come up with interesting looking aliens these days? It's understandable that an invading force should be intimidating, but the number of legitimately creative alien creatures I've seen in movies in the last decade or so can be counted on a single hand. Cowboys and Aliens employs the usual brand of alien beastly in looks, snarling in demeanor, and yet somehow still totally capable of managing insanely intricate space-faring technology. They're like multi-armed sabertooth gorillas with masters degrees in engineering. And they all look identical. Again, crafting individual facial features for a whole horde of aliens would be a slightly insane undertaking, but is it so much to ask that we give our attackers a bit of individual personality beyond sharp claws and a penchant for going "RAAAARRRGGGGHHHH?"
Granted, they're only half as snarly as Ford, who moves through the film with the look of a man perpetually tasting something awful. I will say that's roughly half his charm in Cowboys and Aliens. He's just so goddamn mean that when he eventually starts to let his guard down and show a little human tenderness, it's honestly kind of refreshing. Craig is less so. He gets a couple of Butch Cassidy-ish moments of comedy, especially when dealing with members of his former gang (chief among them the great Walton Goggins), but mostly he's in full-on preternatural bad-ass mode, deftly avoiding the alien threat and blasting baddies like it ain't no thang. When he is called upon to seem tortured or sad, it rings fairly hollow. Mostly he just broods, and broods, and broods, until he runs out of film on which to brood. At least we get a few tasteful shots of his toned, chaps-adorned buttocks.
I have complained quite a bit about Cowboys and Aliens, but I don't want to sell the film completely short. There is some entertainment to be had here, mostly thanks to director Jon Favreau, who is one of the better directors we have in the realm of Big Dumb Entertainment. He's done fine work on the Iron Man films, both of which had similarly unfocused scripts. He's very good at pulling coherence out of spaces where there clearly should be none. The story moves with a brisk but comfortable pace, and the action rarely drags. It is, again, ridiculous, but even so, Favreau knows how to get the most mileage out of a scene featuring many men shooting rusty pistols at a rampaging alien foot soldiers. He's good about keeping the camera reasonably static, allowing us to soak up the carnage, rather than distracting from it. Even at the film's dumbest moments, Favreau seems to be smiling and winking at the audience, reveling in it, as opposed to trying to take it overly seriously.
Still, it's hard to recommend Cowboys and Aliens in earnest. Not that this summer has been an embarrassment of quality blockbusters, but even among the middling competition, Cowboys and Aliens comes off as equally middling. Its best moments are fun, but lack any real inventiveness to speak of. There is a good cast here, and some solid action. If that's enough for you to justify a seat at the theater, then by all means, I'll happily send you on your way. Those hoping for something a little more creative than your average alien romp, however, might find Cowboys and Aliens a little on the lean side.