Once in a while, even the most tried and true narrative formula needs to be repackaged. Or so it seemed to the people at DreamWorks, who must’ve said while brainstorming Cowboys & Aliens, “So how about this: a thing meets another thing, but not the other thing you might expect! It’s so crazy, it might work!”
In Cowboys & Aliens, Harrison Ford and Daniel Craig are charged with preventing a hostile takeover of the Wild West, armed only with six-shooters and genre clichés.
And before we know it we’re in a Wild West invaded by extraterrestrials. The concept of Cowboys & Aliens is blaringly obvious, and its execution is obvious in every other way. All the winking genre enthusiasm that director John Favreau—who adapted the movie-ready graphic novel by comic book industrialist Scott Mitchell Rosenberg—brought to romps like Elf and the first Iron Man isn’t apparent here. Neither homage nor satire, Cowboys & Aliens is more like a brainstormed shorthand checklist of plot points and payoffs (timely cavalry-arrival rescues, etc.).
The stars look great, but that doesn’t help the film very much. Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford play a pair that bands together from opposite sides of the law to stop a rash of alien attacks and abductions. Here’s where Cowboys & Aliens could come together like a kid gathering all his random action figures into one sincerely urgent, internally logical superstory, with spacemen and sheriffs, non sequiturs be damned. But we’ve already seen it better executed in Pixar’s Toy Story franchise, not to mention Ford’s own frolic with Gene Wilder in The Frisco Kid some 30-odd years ago. Cowboys & Aliens lacks the attitude of abandon that makes those films great.
Other characters got sketched in at some point, and everyone seems to have just decided to leave them sketchy, letting stereotype pose as archetype. There’s the loner hero (Craig) with no past, and no fear. The crusty rival-cum-ally (Ford) with a heart of gold. The irksome whelp (Paul Dano) on whom the hero puts a beating, to comic effect. The woman (Abigail Spencer) who gets to make out with Daniel Craig. The other woman (Olivia Wilde) who gets to make out with Daniel Craig. In the plus column, Sam Rockwell brings some less contrived humanity to his tagalong part as a docile shopkeeper. So that’s nice.
Some scenes begin promisingly but most just tend to stall out. We’re invited to do the legwork ourselves, but not at all required to, which is doubly insulting. Cowboys & Aliens feels like a perfunctory, mercantile exercise—sagging under the weight of its way too many producer and writer credits, which include some big shots whose demands may well have worn Favreau down.
If you’re sick of cowboy cliches, Favreau seems to simply ask you to wait for space-invader cliches. If you’re sick of those, at least it’ll be over soon.