One glance at a synopsis for the "Cowboys & Aliens" graphic novel reveals that the film has no characters in common, and practically no story elements either. All they share is the basic premise of a bunch of characters from your typical Western doing battle with alien invaders from outer space. Clearly, what the filmmakers were really interested in was the title: "Cowboys & Aliens." I can see the potential for some interesting possibilities, even with a concept that slight - combining genres, and playing with their various tropes. How did director Jon Favreau, producers Ron Howard and Brian Grazer, and writers Alex Kurtzman, Damon Lindelof, and Roberto Orci make out? Not too well, unfortunately.
We start with a nameless man played by Daniel Craig waking up in the middle of the New Mexico desert, with a mysterious metal cuff locked around his wrist and a tintype of a woman (Abigail Spencer) at his side. He is wounded and has amnesia, but soon proves capable of taking care of himself. He arrives at a nearby town just in time to come across more trouble. Percy Dolarhyde (Paul Dano), son of powerful cattle rancher Colonel Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford) gets drunk and terrorizes the locals, which forces Sheriff Taggart (Keith Carradine) to toss him in jail. Then unpleasant things are revealed about Daniel Craig's character that get him locked up too. A standoff soon results between the Colonel and the Sheriff, and that's when the aliens show up to give them all a common enemy. Other colorful folks along for the adventure include saloon owner Doc (Sam Rockwell), his wife (Ana de la Raguera), an elderly preacher (Clancy Brown), the sheriff's wide-eyed young grandson (Noah Ringer), Dolarhyde's Indian foster son (Adam Beach), a mystery woman named Ella (Olivia Wilde), and a scruffy dog.
"Cowboys & Aliens" suffers a dull, lousy script, full of half-developed and inconsistent characters, story arcs patterned after old clichés, and some ideas that just didn't work on the screen. As a summer movie, the best thing I can say about it is that the special effects work is all right, there's plenty of action, and the aliens are appropriately menacing. On the other hand, you have the silliness of the aliens plucking up humans with glow-in-the-dark lassos, and despite being an advanced race of space-travelers, they show absolutely no knowledge of even basic tactics in certain crucial scenes. One could argue that this is just a cornball B-movie dressed up in 2011 special effects, and with the title "Cowboys & Aliens," could we really have expected more? I say yes, considering the caliber of the talent involved. Some of the low points were unforgivably low. Did they really need to resort to multiple scenes of the little kid stuck in close quarters with an alien? Why is the jerk from the beginning of the film suddenly not a jerk at the end? And Olivia Wilde's character doesn't make any sense
There are times when "Cowboys & Aliens" works. Daniel Craig cuts a lean, imposing figure in the harsh terrain, and you could easily see him as a successor to Clint Eastwood's Man With No Name. Clancy Brown, Paul Dano, and Keith Carradine play characters they've proven to be good at playing: the wise preacher, the weak-chinned coward, and the sturdy sheriff. The rest of the cast is kind of a mess. Harrison Ford doesn't have enough gristle for the hard-hearted Colonel Dolarhyde, and Sam Rockwell makes for a great ratfink, but doesn't hit quite the right notes as the anxious greenhorn, Doc. Olivia Wilde constantly sticks out like a sore thumb, and I hate to pick on him after "The Last Airbender," but Noah Ringer is awfully stiff.
I think what really sank the film for me though, was the tone. This was the perfect title to get a little campy and a little silly with, but instead Favreau and crew played it dead serious, emphasis on the dead. Daniel Craig has multiple blurry flashback sequences that are overly somber, verging on horror. The laugh lines are few and far between. So when we do get to some of the campier action scenes with the aliens, they come off as ridiculous. As for the drama, Craig, Ford and Adam Beach manage to salvage some moments, but otherwise every emotional beat is so forced and so rote, and the filmmakers didn't do nearly a good enough job of getting us to care about any of these people in the first place.
Some have called out "Cowboys & Aliens" for the laziness of its premise, but there have been great films made from even flimsier material. However, this one needed a lot more effort and attention and care than I think anyone involved with the production was willing to give it. I suppose that's the danger of making films based on catchy titles - they're great for marketing purposes, but at the end of the day, the audience wants to see an interesting story. "Cowboys & Aliens" remains a good idea, but without any substance behind it, it's a pretty lousy film.