The title of Cowboys & Aliens has been a subject of mockery since the movie was announced, but really, it’s a great example of truth in advertising. You want cowboys and aliens in the same movie? This one’s for you. If you want anything beyond what the title promises, look elsewhere. And that means even anything resembling a clever mash-up of established genres. Cowboys & Aliens has cowboys and aliens aplenty, but it’s too beholden to the rhythms of 21st-century summer blockbusters to be satisfying as either a Western or a piece of science fiction. Working from a script by a long string of credited writers that includes everyone from Steve Oedekerk (Patch Adams, Kung Pow: Enter The Fist), the ubiquitous team of Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman (Transformers, Fringe), and Lost’s Damon Lindelof, Jon Favreau directs as if he didn’t really give much thought to the movie beyond assembling a bunch of pistol-toting men and some CGI effects and letting things run their inevitable course.
They do, dully, in spite of a supporting cast that includes Clancy Brown, Sam Rockwell, Paul Dano, Keith Carradine, Adam Beach, and Walton Goggins, who would all probably appear in Westerns all the time if anyone made them anymore. It’s the top of the bill that gives the film trouble. Daniel Craig plays an amnesia-stricken cowboy who wakes up wearing an odd metal shackle on his wrist, and has no memory of how he ended up alone in the desert. Stumbling into a frontier town, the gruff, inexpressive Craig stirs up trouble when he stands up to Dano, the loutish, drunken son of the gruffer, even-less-expressive Harrison Ford, playing a cattle baron whose money keeps the town afloat. When aliens attack the town, roping its citizens like cattle and whisking them away to parts unknown, Craig and Ford band together for the common good.
It’s an ill-considered pairing: They have such similar screen presences that Cowboys & Aliens often feels like a peanut-butter-and-peanut-butter sandwich, and the film’s weirdly solemn tone takes its cues from the leads. The cast of characters around Ford and Craig exists primarily so Favreau can field-marshal everyone toward a cowboys-vs.-aliens climax (with some Native Americans thrown in for good measure) that’s big on booming noises, but short on thrills. This is thin stuff made even thinner by attempts to shoehorn in some obligatory bits of human interest—Olivia Wilde as a love interest for Craig, some fatherly business for Ford—between unsatisfying setpieces. The title reads like a checklist. The movie feels like an expanded version of the same.