Many viewers of Cowboys & Aliens will be swept up in its promise, that they will be given cowboys and aliens. For them, this movie is more than sufficient. They will see cowboys. They will see aliens. They will see cowboys firing their revolvers fruitlessly at aliens, and they will see a lot of it. What they won’t see is pretty much everything else.
This is a dreary movie. It plods along for over two hours without a real destination in mind while its visual effects run rampant and its thunderous soundscape threatens to bring the walls down. Its plot is silly, and its characters inhabit it without really knowing why they’re there.
Daniel Craig plays an outlaw by the not enigmatic name of Jake Lonergan. He awakes in the middle of the desert with an alien bracelet attached to his wrist, and no memory. This is odd even for 1873. He is a vague cross between Jason Bourne and James Bond, a combination that should sound exciting on paper but otherwise proves confusing on screen. He is a taciturn fellow, and the few words that do leave his lips come out in a smorgasbord of mumbles and groans. Half the time we’re trying to decipher if he’s speaking with an English accent or an Old West drawl. The challenge is befuddling.
He is joined by the townspeople of Absolution, where an assortment of characters rally to the cause after alien spaceships swoop in, destroy the buildings, and leave with a number of hostages, most of whom you can be sure will see the light of day again before the movie’s over. Among the heroes are Woodrow Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford), a rancher with his merry posse; Doc the bartender and doctor (Sam Rockwell); the town preacher (Clancy Brown); a young boy with courage enough to use a dagger (Noah Ringer); and a pretty lady who’s not really a lady at all (Olivia Wilde). You should be able to — twenty minutes into the film — determine who will live, who will die, and who will end up doing the kissing. You will not be surprised by your findings.
The plot — if there is one — revolves around greedy aliens. From what I can surmise, they hop from planet to planet in search of gold. It just so happens that Earth has gold, and she’s producing in abundance. These avaricious creatures want a share in this, and so they invade with their phallic ships, drill deep into the ground, and absorb the shiny stuff. Why do they want gold? Heaven knows. Why do they need hostages? To study, apparently. And the studying process requires the hostages to stare blankly at a large bubbly thing that emits light. You can tell a lot of thought has gone into this.
A lot of thought has also gone into the design of the aliens themselves, who resemble frogs mixed with apes. They are not very smart creatures. They excel, first and foremost, in leaping from outside the frame right into the middle of the shot, no doubt as a scare tactic. How they remain so stealthy is a mystery, considering their size and lack of intelligence. They also have an extra pair of lanky and slimy arms that are stored behind hinged chest plates. When the plates open and the arms come out, their vital organs are exposed. Convenient, don’t you think? Somewhere out there their god is rethinking his design mechanics.
Cowboys & Aliens exists as a gimmick, and many people will like it. Who wouldn’t enjoy the prospect of seeing provincial heroes tackle advanced extra-terrestrials? What’s ironic is that this movie would have been much more convincing had it dropped the alien angle and stuck more truthfully to an old Western tale. All the pieces are in place, and Cowboys & Aliens’ best moments come in the beginning, when all is introduced and nothing is yet destroyed. In an era where the Western genre is said to be dead, I believe a revival should come from the Western, and not from outer space.
Best Moment | The first however many minutes of the movie. We’re taking the time to get invested in these characters, and it’s working. But then… everything goes awry.
Worst Moment | The godforsaken kiss. She’s not even human for crying out loud.