Let’s get something out of the way: Cowboys & Aliens is not an attempt to turn camp into cash. The movie’s got plenty of the titular six-shooter shooters and tentacled meanies, but its gimmick is more in name than in practice. Think mash-up, not B-grade schlock.
And like many mash-ups, it’s got no soul. There’s enough winks and nods — more often with the deft touch of a claw hammer than not — to make Cowboys & Aliens decent relief in an escape-the-white-hot-summer-heat-for-a-few-precious-hours kind of way. Still, director Jon Favreau can’t manufacture the moral and social crises that so often litter sci-fi and western plots.
Take the opening scenes: A man with no name (Daniel Craig) wakes up in the desert, alone. He’s got no clues about his identity, save for a photo of an unknown woman and the few bits of ass kicking that he uses to dispatch a wandering gang of crooks unlucky enough to stumble his way. He wanders into the nearest town, meets a kindly, plainspoken preacher (Clancy Brown), a mustachioed sheriff (Keith Carradine), a down-on-his-luck barkeep (Sam Rockwell), a gorgeous tough broad (Olivia Wilde), a churlish rich boy (Paul Dano), and the boy’s stubbly, growling father (Harrison Ford), who recognizes him as Jake Lonergan, a criminal wanted for robbery and murder.
In other words, it’s chock full of tropes, down to a fiddler who cuts off his song mid-note when trouble breaks out in the saloon, and dime-novel threats like “Palms to heaven, friend.” Western? Sure looks like it.
Then, there’s the sci-fi. When Lonergan first wakes up, he discovers some high-tech gizmo attached to his wrist. (Oddly, nobody in 1873 seems too concerned that a guy on the lam is packing a strange weapon. Maybe they’re too disarmed by Craig’s icy stares and clenched jaw to ask.) Once the aliens fly into town and Lonergan uses his fancy bracelet to blamo a spaceship out of the sky, the jig is up:
There’s sci-fi in my western! There’s western in my sci-fi!
And that’s the extent of Favreau’s grand experiment — Cowboys & Aliens is Independence Day without heartening speeches or off-color charisma, and a whole lot more revolvers and period costumery.
That apathy may be Favreau’s mark more than the plot itself. On the heels of Iron Man, he’s become an everyman’s blockbuster director, offering up a deft cocktail of action, comedy, and drama that’s meant to satisfy the largest possible audience. The strategy’s worked well — three of the last four movies he directed have each grossed more than $200 million. But by sticking to the plan and ditching irony, Cowboys & Aliens suffocates under a misguided attempt to play it serious.
Sure, the cast is having a ball. Harrison Ford looks alive for the first time in more than a decade. Walton Goggins and the other character actors who surround Ford and Craig shine. Even Wilde slips in some charm between bouts of out-of-sorts indifference. Yet, there’s nothing fun about a movie that seems determined to not acknowledge its bat-shit, oddball premise. Instead of showing ironic sense, Favreau rounds up a gang of gun-toting thugs, townsfolk, and a tribe of Indians to fight the alien hordes with neither smirks nor scoffs.
The generic action is entertaining enough to carry Cowboys & Aliens to its finish, but just barely. There’s too little motivation to care. The plot becomes a hodge-podge of mixed clichés as it gears up for the climactic battle, only to tidy it all together in the end as if it were a ho-hum western.
For a movie that was billed as a clash of killer genres that would evoke Steven Spielberg, who produced the movie, and Sergio Leone, that’s just not enough. Cowboys & Aliens is stuck in a between — it’s not quite a western, not quite science fiction, and wholly unremarkable as a result.
Buried under all the otherworldly explosions and grizzled dialogue is a message worth mentioning. The cowboys — a weak group, with primitive technologies — are unexpectedly attacked by foreigners who want to sap their land’s rarest resource. These foreigners exhibit no remorse about their actions; they kill, boom, or bust any obstacle that stands in their way. They simply plop down, claim the land as their own, and get to work. Only when the cowboys join forces with their rivals — lawmen with criminals, whites and natives fighting side by side — can they finally beat back against their oppressors. Together, they can survive.
Funny, I don’t remember the Indians being so lucky.