On paper, the concept of Cowboys And Aliens looks great. After all, both genres are ripe with tropes which could be mined for both comedy and action. It seems that a lot of others think so too (or at least think they can make a lot of money) as the premise was enough to attract the attention of several big name Hollywood stars, a fashionable director and the scrawlings of no less than five screenwriters.
That five screenwriters were involved should instantly ring alarm bells. Collaborative efforts often fall short as there’s a tendency to shotgun ideas at the screen and see what sticks. Such is the case with Cowboys And Aliens – a film which fails to capitalise on the merits of either genre and simply doubles the disappointment.
Daniel Craig plays Jake, an outlaw who wakes up in the desert with no memory of who he is and with an irremovable metal bracelet attached to his arm. Amnesia clearly has no effect on his ability to fight as he quickly dispatches a group of wannabe thieves. Wandering into the nearest town, he’s promptly arrested by the local sheriff (Keith Carradine) after standing up to the drunken oafish son (Paul Dano) of fearsome landowner Dollarhyde (Harrison Ford).
When aliens start attacking the town and abducting the inhabitants Jake quickly discovers that his bracelet is capable of shooting down the spacecraft. Saddling up with Dollarhyde, a mysterious woman called Ella (Olivia Wilde), a cowardly doctor (Sam Rockwell) and Dollarhyde’s right hand man (Adam Beach), the posse set off to find the source of the alien incursion and save their people.
All the ingredients are here for a good action movie but curiously despite the presence of Craig and Ford (James Bond and Indiana Jones for Chrissakes) neither character is compelling or engaging. This is in part the fault of the script which takes itself way too seriously. Opportunities for pithy one-liners which would have been perfectly at home in a movie like this are wasted. Instead we’re left with the po-faced seriousness of Daniel Craig, a permanent gargoyle scowl etched on his face and the humourlessness of Ford.
The rest of the cast are completely wasted. Paul Dano goes AWOL after about five minutes and there’s a criminal waste of Sam Rockwell who would probably have made a more interesting protagonist. Olivia Wilde, while stunning, also makes very little contribution, relegated to a token love interest and plot device.
Furthermore the aliens are incredibly disappointing. Their insectoid frames are extremely derivative (featuring a sort of crab-like exoskeleton) and for an intergalactic space faring species, you’d expect them to have a slightly more tactical intelligence than running in single file towards a man armed with a wrist-mounted laser cannon. Credulous bad guys mean the good guys are all the less impressive.
There are also more plot holes that you can shake a six-shooter at. The aliens’ need for gold is never explained and left as an unsatisfying MacGuffin and their abduction of the local townsfolk is credited to “look for weaknesses” which is completely unnecessary as the aliens are seven foot tall crab men who slice through squishy human flesh with ease. This is a world where things happen because the writers say they happen, not because they actually make any narrative sense.
Cowboys And Aliens should have been a corking action film which delivered the best of both worlds. Instead, it’s merely a derivative action movie which has the merits of neither. It’s simply not fun.