As its title indicates, this is a strange cross of movie genres, and lest any viewers get antsy, it doesn’t allow much time to pass before we first encounter UFOs in the Old West. The film takes its time unraveling the rest of the story, leading us along a trail with no clear destination in sight, at first. (Could that have something to do with the six A-list writers who worked on the screenplay, which was inspired by Scott Michael Rosenberg’s graphic novel?) All we know is that there’s been an alien invasion, and neither the cowboys nor Indians know how to deal with it.
Director Jon Favreau earns his Western bona fides with a sharp eye for casting and locations. The first characters we see, after Daniel Craig, are a trio of authentic-looking cowboys played by Western veteran Buck Taylor and his two sons; thus, the movie looks and feels right from the very start. Cinematographer Matthew Libatique offers panoramic views of the beautiful and—
—rugged New Mexico settings throughout the picture.
Daniel Craig seems right at home in this milieu as a taciturn fellow who’s a man of action but can’t remember who he is, or how he wound up stranded on the prairie with a strange, futuristic metal contraption strapped to his wrist. Harrison Ford is also well-cast as a bullying cattleman who locks horns with the stranger, but he’s forced to scowl through most of the picture, and his role is suffused with Western clichés. (His no-account son, played by Paul Dano, is an embarrassment to him, while his Indian ward, Adam Beach, represents the son he always wished he had.)
In many ways, Olivia Wilde has the most interesting part in the film, for reasons I shouldn’t reveal. Let’s just say she’s a non-traditional Western leading lady.
Cowboys & Aliens is never boring, and its visual effects are first-rate. Veteran stunt coordinator Terry Leonard has made sure the action and horsemanship are up to par. But much as I wanted to, I never fully embraced the silly premise.
I look at it this way: if you removed the science-fiction material, you’d be left with a decent Western that covers pretty familiar territory. If you just focused on the fantastic angle, you’d have a fairly typical alien-invasion yarn. Because neither one of the two ingredients is exceptional in itself, the melding of the genres is uninspired.
That said, Cowboys & Aliens is certainly watchable, like its two-fisted leading man…but it makes me long for a full-blooded Western instead of this crossbreed.