You have to admit that we’ve reached an interesting point in film history when you can watch a movie called “Cowboys and Aliens” and actually be surprised that it isn’t very good. But all the pieces were there, we cry! A funky concept, a stellar cast, a talented director, top-notch special effects, character developme… Oh wait. Never mind. All the great actors and pitch-worthy concepts in the world don’t count for squat if the audience doesn’t care about what’s going on. For all of its obviously good intentions, Cowboys and Aliens is one of the biggest disappointments of the summer.
The film starts well enough, introducing an interesting if familiar cast of western archetypes: the outlaw with a heart of gold (Daniel Craig), the dangerous cattle baron with a hidden heart of gold (Harrison Ford), the downtrodden barkeep with a heart of gold (Sam Rockwell), the preacher with a heart of gold (Clancy Brown, nicely playing against type), the mysterious woman with a heart of gold (Olivia Wilde), and Paul Dano, the jerkwad son of the dangerous cattle rancher with a heart of gold, who does not himself have a heart of gold but is written out of the script by the beginning of Act Two. Oh boy, are we in for a treat. I’ve seen more exciting interactions between prescription medications.
The obvious heart of the story is the dynamic between Ford and Craig, but they barely have any screen time together when explosions aren’t involved, and frankly Ford’s just not terribly convincing as the bad guy he's made out to be, quasi-, anti- or otherwise. He’s got the gruff exterior down pat, but the script never treats him as anything other than Harrison Ford with a penchant for mistreating his cowhands. Unconvincing and thoroughly unsold hero moments from the likes of Rockwell and The Last Airbender’s Noah Ringer take the place of any natural development in character, and unconvincingly melodramatic death scenes take the place of genuine drama. Not that it’s not a hard film to watch, but doing so made me very, very sleepy.
Oh yes, there’s a plot. Daniel Craig stars as Jake Lonergan, an amnesiac who wakes up in the desert with a strange device stuck to his arm, but after wandering into town he finds himself embroiled in a local conflict with a cattle baron (Ford) and his violently entitled son (Dano), and also he’s under arrest. It turns out Jake’s a wanted man. But before Sheriff Keith Carradine can cart him away, aliens attack the town and kidnap half the innocent residents. When Ford & Co. discover that the thing on Lonergan’s wrist is the only weapon capable of defeating the otherworldly rustlers they form an uneasy alliance to track down the monsters, and rescue their kin.
That’s a good setup for a fun genre mish-mash movie, and indeed the first act makes many promises that the rest of the movie has little intention of fulfilling. The action sequences range from genuine thrills – I like the high-tech lassoes the aliens have on their U.F.O.’s – to run of the mill explosion fests. I suspect there are kids or people with fairly modest standards who will enjoy Cowboys and Aliens as a low-rent popcorn movie, but low-rent popcorn movies don’t usually attract such impressive talent, although they have been known to waste it. This is one of those films. It’s just a mediocre genre effort that could have reached greater heights if somebody cared more about the characters than the goofy premise, or at least cared enough about the goofy premise to give it a little more pizzazz.
CRAVE Online Rating: 4.5/10