Cowboys & Aliens isn’t a bad movie, it just isn’t particularly good. You knew going in that it was going to be ridiculous, and possibly a little bit silly—it is called Cowboys & Aliens after all—but it commits the one cardinal sin that a movie like this absolutely cannot commit; it’s boring. This should be a wild, raucous, hootin’ an’ hollerin’ good time, but it comes across as tepid and uninspired.
The pieces are in place to make Cowboys & Aliens something spectacular. Taken alone, single elements are enjoyable, but they never add up to much, which is a minor tragedy because this should be so much fun. Daniel Craig plays a cowboy who wakes up barefoot and bleeding, in the middle of nowhere with a strange metal cuff on his wrist. He doesn’t remember anything, all he knows is that he is a badass, a point illustrated when he kills three bandits and steals their stuff. Harrison Ford plays the local big shot cattle rancher who pretty much runs the small hamlet of Absolution, and Clancy Brown plays a preacher who doesn’t take any guff.
So right there you have James Bond, Han Solo/Indiana Jones, and the Kurgen. How can that not be incredible? Then you add Olivia Wilde as the old west equivalent of a UFO conspiracy nut, Sam Rockwell as a timid bartender, Keith Carradine as the gruff sheriff, Walton Goggins as a stick up man, and more, and things should be popping off all over the place. But instead I found myself struggling to care about what was happening on the screen in front of me.
There is little character development to speak of. Everyone is a vacant type and nothing more, and I can’t help but think that not making full use of these actors is a shameful waste. Rockwell is such a charismatic performer, but he just sits on screen. Craig’s western accent sounds forced to the point where I began to wonder whether or not someone else dubbed in all of his dialogue. Wilde is passable as the spooky girl with giant eyes, but Goggins’s performance as a sniveling, sycophantic outlaw is the only one that really stands out from the pack.
When Jake Longergan (Craig) shows up in Absolution it causes quite a ruckus. Though he doesn’t remember it, he’s apparently wanted for stealing a bunch of gold from Colonel Woodrow Dolarhyde (Ford), a grizzled Civil War vet. Just as Dolarhyde is about to go torture the living shit out of Lonergan, a bunch of aliens arrive on the scene and wreck up the joint. Tooling around in their fancy-pants flying machines, the aliens blast the holy hell out of Absolution, and in the process lasso a bunch of locals. Nothing the townsfolk can do even slows the invaders down. That is until the bracelet on Longergan’s wrist springs to life. Turns out it is a weapon, a weapon capable of blasting those damn extraterrestrials right out of the sky. When things calm down the town rounds up a posse and sets out on a mission to rescue their kidnapped kin.
This western/science fiction mash-up sounds like a perfect set up, at least for someone with my cinematic proclivities. Factor in the director of Iron Man, Jon Favreau, producers like Steven Spielberg, and writers like Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci (the team behind Fringe, who also did some producing), and I don’t know what went wrong. Instead of being an action-packed summertime treat, the film they created is listless and bland.
Nothing is dramatically wrong with the final product that is Cowboys & Aliens, but nothing ever connects like it needs to. The look and feel of the film are great when it is played as a straight western; there are some fun moments when Craig and Ford have grim cowboy stare downs; and the cinematography makes spectacular use of the New Mexico landscape; but the sci-fi elements fall flat. The aliens look decent, but are never anything more than an ambiguous threat. Even then you question how much danger the characters are in. Even though at times it appears that half the cowboys have been tackled and chewed on by the aliens, their numbers rarely appear to dwindle.
Cowboys & Aliens asks questions, but provides no answers. You get a couple of flashbacks that show you what happened to Lonergan, but you can figure that out on your own easy enough. There is no solid motivation for the aliens beyond a vague, “that’s what they do”, and what reason is ultimately given will only leave you asking more questions. I don’t want to spoil anything, but huh? The plot is random and illogical, and there is little in the way of tension or narrative force to propel the film forward. Things simply plod along.
My taste is questionable. I know I say that often, but it bears repeating here because it also means I can forgive a lot in a movie. And I didn’t hate Cowboys & Aliens, but it isn’t anything special. It’s not a flop; it is just kind of useless. And like I said, the last thing a movie like this—a big time summer blockbuster—should be is dull, and it’s exactly that. I could honestly overlook every last fault in the film, except that one. Cowboys & Aliens is lackluster, insipid, and squanders any potential upside. It winds up an empty shell of an action movie. It’s like the 4th of July when you light off a rocket, but instead of exploding in a brilliant flash of color, it sputters out and plummets to earth, a dud bouncing on the sidewalk. Dissatisfying is the word the springs most readily to mind.