Cowboys & Aliens begins with a very simple premise we’ve seen time and time again; It’s 1873 and aliens invade a small town in the West at the height of the gold rush. Oh wait, that’s not really familiar. Where did this idea come from? A comic book? A comic book cover? Sadly, that sounds about right. Daniel Craig stars as amnesiac Jake Lonergan, a man who wakes up in the desert with a strange metallic bracelet that the hardest 80′s death metal band would be envious of. Woodrow Dolarhyde, played by the always-adventurous Harrison Ford, is a mining and cattle man on the look for Jake. Meanwhile, towngirl Ella Swenson (Olivia Wilde) and Doc (Sam Rockwell) join up to fight against an invading force. What is this invading force? Not the typical Indians or bandits, but aliens (surprise, I know!) and the fight for earth’s gold begins. John Favereau directs, not playing the aliens to be funny villains nor dreadfully serious, but as a straight-up action movie through and through with 2 old guys at the forefront and a lot of other plots tossed into the pot for good measure.
The film shows the aliens in all their digital CGI glory, appearing about midway through the film leading to an all-out assault against their Mothership. The combination of aliens and cowboys has some obstacles to overcome. On one hand there are a number of things that work here. The basic idea of cowboys attacking and defending against an advanced race in spaceships and laser-wrist guns is an original premise to say the least. Daniel Craig’s story is the most intriguing of the numerous plots. His portrayal of Jake is realistic and original, in vain of The Man With No Name from the Sergio Leone series, he’s a man with no real past at the onset and the film benefits from that mystery. As he slowly unravels more about himself it becomes apparent there is more at play than even Jake prematurely thinks, and Craig’s acting style shows this superbly. It’s after he does remember who he is (and the Indian ceremony that apparently cures his amnesia) that the movie switches tone from somber western film to all-out action, losing a lot of its greatest momentum with the revelation.
The movie starts out interestingly enough. Jake wakes up in the desert with nothing but a bracelet on his wrist, a picture of a woman and an incision on his chest. He is ambushed then kidnapped and the aliens show up. Up to the invasion most things are playing fairly well. The relationship between Craig and the townsfolk, including Ford and his irreverent son Percy (Paul Dano) set the film up to be an interesting Western. The pacing is good and Favereau shows that his action-directing skills are deserved, the man can set up and deliver fighting sequences very well. It’s in the execution of the main plot where things start to become more traditional and boring. The movie would benefit from being just a straight-up western but instead opts to switch modes about midway through the film when character fly on alien spacecraft and basically shoot at green screens for 30 minutes. There is a concept here that can go beyond that of a comic book cover but the movie fails to realize it. Instead it gets caught up in its own average special effects and becomes a basic beat-’em-up picture. The characters are there and have an investment in the fight, Ford is good as an old Colonel with more history than given and Wilde’s character has more to hide than we bargain for, but it’s in the aliens themselves that the movie falls apart. Nowhere in it are we given any real incentive to hate the aliens besides the fact that they attack humans. Sure, they want gold, but they’re all faceless, bug-eyed giants who just fly around and attack everybody. The movie lacks any real tension in that regard. It has a villain but very little reason to root against it. As a minor complaint, I’m waiting for the day when earth is invaded by aliens in movies where the aliens have clothes and interact with each other like people do. Just sayin’.
For an action movie Cowboys & Aliens delivers those goods. There are lots of explosions and fights and they’re done well. Craig holds his own against veterans on all fronts and is a convincing lead for the movie. Everyone here really does a fine job. The only real fault lies in the basic premise itself. It’s original enough to be something beyond just a head-scratching title but instead decides to go a very traditional action route. Think of it this way. If this stayed a Western we could have the dynamic of the town, this rich farmer and his crazy son and an outlaw who’s lost his memory and something really interesting can be done. With aliens thrown into the mix for no apparent reason they are simply a distraction, a sideshow, something you can add on to the end of any era and get probably the same formula. Knights & Aliens? Pirates & Aliens? Bloggers & Aliens? The list goes on and on and quite frankly all are probably about on par with this film.