There’s about seventy minutes of fine filmmaking in Cowboys & Aliens. The problem is that the movie’s runtime is nearly two hours.
Jake Lonergan (Daniel Craig) wakes up in the desert with no memory and a bizarre, powerful bracelet latched to his wrist. He strolls into Absolution, a dead mining settlement, in search of information. There he meets the mysterious Ella (Olivia Wilde), who claims to need his help, and Colonel Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford), a hardnosed cattle baron/Civil War vet whose jackass son (Paul Dano) uses the whole town for target practice. These characters don’t have much time to get acquainted before—boom, boom, pow—the alien horde crashes the party and starts blowing everything to smithereens. Humanity is in danger, and the only person who can save the day is the guy who doesn’t even know his own name. Just peachy.
Call me crazy, but I wish those aliens hadn’t shown up. Though I’m all for genre-blending, the fact is that Cowboys & Aliens succeeds much more as a Western than as a sci-fi thriller. Dolarhyde uses his standing as a powerful businessman to control Absolution. (In typical Westerns, the law is either inept or absent.) The genre’s racial tension is exhibited in the scene where the heroes make contact with a Native American tribe. And Lonergan’s altercation with the self-appointed new leader of his gang reminds me of a similar scene in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969). It’s all very nicely done.
But whereas C&A puts conventions of the Western genre to terrific use, its sci-fi is but a CGI fest that lacks inspiration and wonder. The aliens exist only to destroy and be destroyed. You have to wonder where all of this “beings of higher intelligence” stuff came from. These creatures are more like video game targets. To make matters worse, we learn that the whole reason they’ve come to Earth is, gasp, to mine gold. Seriously?
The cast certainly gives it their all, though—especially Ford, whose raspy, deadpan voice is reminiscent of John Wayne or Gary Cooper. And Daniel Craig is a surprisingly good choice for the movie’s protagonist. Like Arnold Schwarzenegger in Total Recall (1990) or Matt Damon in The Bourne Identity (2002), Craig does an admirable job of selling his character’s initial ignorance. It’s fun to watch a perfect action hero try to maneuver through a plot he doesn’t understand.
As appealing as they are, though, these actors cannot rescue C&A from its additional failings. The screenplay features too many subplots (nearly every character has his/her own narrative thread), and much of the dialogue sounds artificial. When Dolarhyde doles out bits of fatherly wisdom and affection, it’s hard to keep watching. He’s much more entertaining as a hardass.
So, do I recommend this tale of cowboys and Indians and monsters? Oh, how I wish I could! I appreciated the thoroughly Western aspects of it, and the performances are enjoyable. It’s not the actors’ faults that they’re weighed down by writing that tries to do so much that, ultimately, it’s defeated by its own ambition.
Cowboys & Aliens is the kind of movie that makes you want to like it. Want to. C+
Note: My apologies for originally writing “C&W” instead of “C&A.” A little mental lapse.