It feels like 2011 has had a dearth of hit summer blockbusters, especially those that aren’t a sequel or spin-off of some kind. Sure, some have raked in the money but that doesn’t necessarily equal quality, or critical acclaim.
Everyone’s still waiting for this year’s Inception, an original idea that’s hot with critics and audiences alike. With that in mind, Cowboys & Aliens has been heavily anticipated by many. Indie favorite turned studio favorite with Iron Man, John Favreau has a pretty good reputation and the stakes are high for his new film, also based on a graphic novel. Cowboys & Aliens demonstrates that talent he has for bringing exciting stories to the big screen, but it also leaves much to be desired.
Let’s start with the good. The setting is the old, wild west as the film opens with Daniel Craig waking up in the middle of the desert. He looks confused. That makes sense considering he doesn’t remember how he ended up there, let alone who he is. He also has a strange metal bracelet on his arm. He wanders into a basically deserted town where the local preacher Meacham (Clancy Brown) stitches up his strange wound.
From there we meet the rest of the characters, all town locals. As Craig is being fixed up gun shots ring outside in the town square. He finds Percy Dolarhyde (Paul Dano), drunk and shooting off his gun for “fun.” The son of Woodrow Dolarhyde (a fact he won’t let you forget), he’s just the bratty son of the town’s most powerful man. Soon he has tavern owner Doc (Sam Rockwell) dancing as he fires into the ground.
Calming the situation, the town thanks the new stranger but it’s not long before the Sheriff realizes who he is— Jake Lonergan, wanted outlaw. As Jake and Percy both find themselves in the slammer, Woodrow (Harrison Ford) hears of his son’s drunken outburst and heads into town to free him. However, just as things are beginning to heat up, and it turns out Woodrow has been looking to settle a score with Jake, alien ships come flying in destroying the town and snatching up people with space age lassos. Soon, the survivors find themselves at a loss and need to find common ground if they’re going to attempt to rescue the taken.
What the movie does well is establish an authentic western setting, making an alien invasion that much more jarring and exciting. And while amnesia may be a cliched plot tool, it mostly works here so that Craig is at just as much at a loss as the rest of the town. But there’s one woman who believes otherwise. And this is where the not so good begins.
Ella (Olivia Wilde) wears a dress, but with a holster it looks, well, fairly ridiculous. For much of the beginning of the film she just stands around watching the action. And she always seems to be around, for some reason. She strikes up a conversation with Jake before he’s arrested, but mostly just asks questions instead of answering them. Wilde has absolutely no presence on screen. It’s hard to tell if the fault’s with her acting abilities as her character, while not totally useless, feels underwritten and forced into the action. Maybe an actress with more charisma could have pulled it off, but as it is Wilde drags down every single scene she’s in.
But it’s not just her that drags down the film. As it progresses, we begin to get emotional scenes that are supposed to be some sort of payoff, but these rarely feel earned. We don’t really spend enough time with any character except Lonergan. Harrison Ford plays the curmudgeon Dolarhyde well, channeling his inner Han Solo but with much less charm, but we only learn about his character through small anecdotes here and there. We’re never really given a full picture. So when it comes time for big character moments, they feel over the top and cheesy.
Still there’s plenty of good action, both western and alien. Favreau does a commendable job of mixing the two genres while still keeping it grounded as mostly a western. Plus it’s the first film in quite a while in which Ford is actually enjoyable to watch. Craig is also fun to watch and holds the movie on his shoulders quite well. However, with Wilde completely miscast and many emotional misfires, the film never truly finds it’s tone.
Rating: 3 out of 5