Cowboys & Aliens blasts into theaters this weekend with as much potential as any movie this summer. Starring Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford, written by the guys who wrote Star Trek and Lost, produced by Ron Howard and Steven Spielberg, and directed by Jon Favreau (Iron Man I & II), it should have been the quintessential summer movie– full of slam-bang action, great effects, and hopefully topped off with a well-thought out story.
Unfortunately it feels more like a rambling Western that may well have put John Ford to sleep, occasionally sprinkled with the schlock of Independence Day.
Craig is Jake Lonergan, who wakes up in the 1870s desert with no idea who he is, how he got there, how he got a nasty stab wound on his side, or why he has a gaudy, metal bracelet on his wrist. Eventually he learns that he’s the one-horse town’s most wanted man– accused of murder, arson, and robbing a stagecoach. And just as the de facto head of the town, cattle baron Woodrow Dolarhyde (Ford), is ready to run him in, a fleet of UFOs arrives, blowing stuff up and kidnapping (via a nifty, space-age bungee cord) half the townsfolk.
It turns out Lonergan’s mystical bracelet is a handy weapon in the fight against the aliens (with one flick of the wrist he downs a spaceship), so enemies become allies, as Lonergan and Dolarhyde form a posse to track down the aliens responsible for the mayhem.
Over the course of the next hour, Lonergan begins to piece his memory back together, and aside from a few, brief tension-filled scenes, Cowboys & Aliens ambles into a territory more reminiscent of a cheesy Western– more concerned with showcasing the scrubby New Mexico landscape than in developing the characters or keeping the suspense ramped up.
Craig is one of the few bright spots; his calm cool (not a far stretch from his James Bond performances) provides some of the only fun to be found. Ford, who was so brilliant as the crusty anchorman in last year’s Morning Glory, is little more than a caricature here– relegated to gruffly spouting lines that would make even late-in-his-career John Wayne flinch.
Director Favreau may well be the worst offender. At times he seems to be a kid in a sci-fi candy store, having all kinds of fun with spaceships and slimy, big-toothed aliens. The majority of the time, though, he seems to be on a mission to make a sweeping True Grit-style Western. Unfortunately, he never really brings the genres together well, and Cowboys & Aliens comes off more like a slogging mash-up of two styles that could have been really great together in someone else’s hands.
Since it is a summer movie after all, most of this can be forgiven and overlooked (you’d be just as foolish to expect Oscar-caliber dialogue and well-rounded characters here as you would in, say, Transformers) but all the same, Cowboys & Aliens feels like a bit of a let-down– a little like getting a tin of beans when you’d really like a big plate of meat and potatoes.
@popcollin is the resident movie critic for Essex Cinemas in Essex, VT, and Cumberland 12 in Plattsburgh, NY.