With a title like “Cowboys & Aliens,” you expect something with multiple personalities, but nothing like this movie’s full-blown schizophrenia. No one involved with the making of this picture ever settled on exactly what they were making. A lighthearted summer action film? No way: too violent and grim. A serious Western revenge film? Nope: too soft and bloodless. A mystery? Nah: too many questions are left unanswered at the end. A character study of life on the frontier? Surely you jest. “Cowboys & Aliens” is just this vague, undefined blob of a movie: all of the above, and none of them convincingly.
Befitting the film’s lack of specificity, it’s set not in any particular time or place but in a generic stereotype-laden mining town called Absolution; this is “The Old West,” not the old west. There we meet a man played by Daniel Craig, who wakes in the middle of the desert with no memory of how he got there or who he is, an oozing bloody bruise on his torso, and a mysterious metal cylinder clamped on his wrist. After easily dispatching a trio of thugs and taking their boots, horse, and hat, he makes his way to town where he discovers he is Jake Lonergan, “The Scourge of the Territories” wanted for arson, kidnapping, hijacking, and murder. Lonergan doesn’t remember any of it or any of himself, and he doesn’t much care. He just wants to uncover the identity the woman in the photograph he keeps under his hat.
This is a promising set-up. Unfortunately, Lonergan, played with lots of intensity and no personality by Craig, has little curiosity about where he’s been and what he’s done (or, for that matter, why he seems so much nicer and more heroic now that he’s lost his memory). Before he can dig much deeper into his past, Absolution falls under attack from aliens, who lay waste to the town with their spaceships and steal all the other main characters’ loved ones including Sam Rockwell‘s wife and Harrison Ford‘s obnoxious son. The survivors round up a posse, bring along a young, defenseless child (Noah Ringer) for no reason whatsoever, and set off in search of their kin. And since that thing on Lonergan’s wrist turns out to be an incredibly powerful weapon, he’s brought along as well.
There are a few interesting inversions of classic Western tropes here. The gunslinger figure Craig is playing is usually a guy trying to forget his past, wrestling with the pain he’s caused and the lives he’s taken. The beautiful damsel, played here with exactly one expression (that’s it in the picture above) by Olivia Wilde, usually needs rescuing, but her Ella is just as capable a cowboy as any of the men. And Westerns that have an old man/young boy dynamic like the one here between Ford’s grumpy cattle rancher and Ringer’s innocent kid typically warn that the glorious violence of the West is not as glorious as it’s cracked up to be. Without spoiling much about the ending of this movie, that’s not exactly its moral. All of this is interesting to observe, but of very little consequence to the film, which is far too busy chasing aliens and fetishizing their futuristic technology to fully explore these upended archetypes.
There are so many characters fighting for screentime — sheriffs and bandits, cattle ranchers and rustlers, grandfathers and grandchildren, Native American healers and advanced alien races — that no one gets a chance to develop a full and consistent character. Good luck trying to figure out just what sort of man Ford’s Woodrow Dolarhyde is. He’s introduced brutally torturing a man for information, then intimidates the local Sheriff for arresting his son. A few scenes later, he’s counseling Ringer on how to be a man and later still his adopted son (Adam Beech, a better actor than his part deserves) gives an impassioned speech explaining how he’s a great warrior who avoids battle but never runs from it. He wisely leaves out the part about him also enjoying a little torture from time to time.
There are some extremely impressive special effects on display in the execution of the aliens and their tech (Craig’s wrist-gun is one badass movie doodad). But these creatures exist purely at the screenwriters’ convenience: remarkably smart or hilariously stupid depending on the demands of any given scene. Here is a species that has mastered the secrets of interstellar travel, and on two separate occasions they are incapable of strapping Daniel Craig down to an operating table. These morons screw this up twice! Their characterization is just as inconsistent as Ford’s. We’re told they don’t move during the day because they don’t see well in sunlight. But when the movie threatens to lag and an action scene is demanded, there they are, flying around in their ships in broad daylight.
These goofs would be a lot less distracting if the movie was any fun, or ever got you caught up in this grand and glorious adventure. It doesn’t. “Cowboys & Aliens” is dour, dirty, and dry, a major disappointment and as bland as as plate of frontier beans. Everyone involved — from director Jon Favreau to the impressive but wasted cast — are capable of much better. No wonder Craig’s character suffers from amnesia. In a few weeks, I’ll have completely forgotten all of this too.