Cowboys and Aliens sounds like the name of a drive-in movie — one of those Roger Corman-produced cheapies like Sharktopus or Live by the Fist or Attack of the 60 Foot Centerfolds.
With a title as stupid as Cowboys and Aliens, I held out some hope that this week's box-office champ might, in spite of its big stars and big budget, have some fun with its high concept. But this dead film shows no trace of the guileless silliness and recklessness that sometimes make direct-to-DVD hackwork much more fun than well-crafted Hollywood product.
That Cowboys and Aliens is both well crafted and more successful than most summer blockbusters at whatever it thinks it's supposed to be doing in the name of "entertainment" should be read as the faintest of faint praise. It is an impersonal, incomplete allusion to not one but two genres, and it's a dull echo and a dim reflection of both of them.
The film pretends to be a Western first. Daniel Craig — with a chiseled, severely angled bod reminiscent of the everymen who stride through Lynd Ward woodcuts — plays an outlaw mysteriously saddled with a futuristic "arm gun." After a skirmish with some bounty hunters, Craig rides into the town of Absolution, where he is watched and probed by an otherworldly beauty in a gingham dress (Olivia Wilde). He also stirs up some trouble with a cattle baron's weaselly son (Paul Dano), whom he shortly turns into his personal punching bag. In his brief role, Dano's brutal overacting nearly makes up for the remarkable inexpressiveness of everyone else in the cast.
Except, that is, for the cattle baron played by crotchety old Harrison Ford. Ford tries to be a real Little Bill-type bad guy at first, but whenever he tries to sound malicious, he merely sounds like he needs to hawk up some phlegm. His mentorship of a frightened youngster clears up his ambiguous character too quickly. I kept imagining what Henry Fonda's black-clad frightener from Once Upon a Time in the West would have done in Ford's place.
Familiar and comforting Western tropes like the midnight ride, the saloon showdown, and the sheriff facing impossible odds disappear once the aliens — who could be the inbred intergalactic cousins of Super 8's homesick extraterrestrial — show up in their spaceships and start space-lassoing the townsfolk. These abductions set in motion a posse hunt/rescue mission that eats up the last hour of the film. Much is wasted during this chase, including Sam Rockwell, an upside-down riverboat location, and Wilde's and Craig's matching set of eerie blue eyes.
Like 2009's humans-and-aliens-living-together drama District 9, Cowboys and Aliens is most effective when it is most violent. There's no way the cowboys can defeat these super-fast, super-tough space invaders, and for a few scenes, director Jon Favreau's carefully edited PG-13 violence creates an atmosphere of genuine dread.
Shoot, fer a picture without one doggone idear in its purty li'l head, I might could reckon this here Cowboys and Aliens ain't half bad. But I ain't no liar, pardner.
Cowboys and Aliens