Directed by: Jon Favreau
Starring: Daniel Craig, Olivia Wilde, Harrison Ford
Rated: PG-13 for intense sequences of western and sci-fi action and violence, some partial nudity and a brief crude reference.
Westerns and alien invasion flicks both have their cliches, and the idea of mashing the two together is a clever one — that kind of genre smashing has done well in the past (“Shaun of the Dead” remains my favorite example). “Cowboys & Aliens” held great promise when its previews first started showing, and while it doesn’t quite live up to its potential, it’s still a lot of fun.
The strange gunslinger coming in to save everyone is a standard of Western movies, and Daniel Craig’s Jake puts on that familiar hat and wears it well. He wakes up in the desert with no memory of who he is or where he’s from (“What do you know?” demands an exasperated preacher. “English,” is the response), or how the strange metal cuff on his wrist came to be there. He does remember some impressive fighting skills, however, and once things get ugly, he is able to control the cuff, which turns out to be a weapon.
Jake winds up in Absolution, a failed gold mining town under the thumb of local cattle baron Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford), whose nature somehow never quite hangs together. He’s the local rich bad guy, but he also seems haunted by a past in the military. And then there’s Ella (Olivia Wilde), a mysterious, gun-toting woman who follows Jake around with big eyes and speaks cryptically.
Dolarhyde’s nastier tendencies are quickly overshadowed by an alien invasion — small ships blow things up and use long, rope-like things to lift townsfolk screaming into the air. Before long, it doesn’t matter who has a grievance against whom, the humans are all banding together to defeat the aliens.
Although the film has a solid plot and the effects are good, it doesn’t quite come together. Each individual piece works, but the whole is not more than the sum of its parts the way it is in great movies. The dialog sounds more like words put together over a writing table than like things actual people would say. That’s likely the result of the script having eight script and story credits — too many cooks spoil the broth, and that’s definitely true of screenplays.
It’s a pity, because the film is otherwise great. The fight scenes are very well done, the pacing is solid, and the cinematography, with its long shots of Western landscapes is gorgeous. This is a movie that should have been fantastic, and instead it’s just good. It’s more like pyrite when it should’ve been golden. Still shiny, but not as rich.
If you’ve seen the trailers and are excited to see “Cowboys & Aliens,” go for it — but don’t expect cinema magic. If, on the other hand, you like character development and top-notch writing, stay away. This is a big budget summer sci-fi flick at its heart, and if you scratch its CGI exterior, it does not bleed.