It’s too bad that studios aren’t willing to make straight-up Westerns anymore, because Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford demonstrate in the high-concept waste of time Cowboys & Aliens that they probably would have been really effective in a movie just called Cowboys. Craig channels his inner Clint Eastwood as a mysterious drifter with no memory who stumbles into your basic Old West town and right into trouble. Trouble at first comes in the form of Ford’s local big-shot Dolarhyde, a Civil War veteran who runs the town with an iron fist, but soon both Dolarhyde and the unnamed mystery man (who turns out to be an outlaw named Jake Lonergan) face a far bigger problem: aliens who attack the town and abduct residents.
Director Jon Favreau does a decent approximation of the classic Western style at first, but he stops short of attempting anything interesting with the genre. Instead the movie gets dragged along by the shoddy alien storyline, which is full of exposition yet also riddled with plot holes. When finally revealed, the aliens themselves look completely generic, and although the filmmakers (including six credited screenwriters) try to connect the invaders’ motives (they’re after gold) to the conventions of the Western genre, the entire sci-fi portion of the movie comes off as sloppy and poorly conceived.
“Based” on a graphic novel that existed as a movie pitch nine years before it was ever published, Cowboys & Aliens never goes further than its basic fanboy-baiting title, which it enacts with grim single-mindedness. Favreau brought humor, playfulness and excitement to his two Iron Man movies, but there’s none of that on display here. Instead, we get plenty of glowering from Ford (whose trademark “Why did someone wake me up and make me star in a movie?” style actually fits his character here), questionable nods to Native American culture and Olivia Wilde as a doe-eyed badass with an obvious and convenient secret. Repurposed into a genuine Old West adventure and infused with a bit of humor, those elements could have been sort of fun to watch. In service of a lame alien-invasion thriller, they’re essentially useless.