The two most popular genres of movies in the 1950s were westerns and science fiction. In 2011 we got Cowboys & Aliens, which lives uneasily in both genres. Cowboys & Aliens, as an idea is so silly right down to its title unfortunately it takes itself stone seriously, which is often poison for both westerns and sci-fi movies.
In the late 19th century a man (Daniel Craig) wakes up in the middle of the desert with a bracelet of unknown origin on his arm. He remembers nothing but is quite adept at hand-to-hand combat and shooting and drinking whisky. He wanders into a dusty town and catches the eye of the prettiest woman around (Olivia Wilde) who seems to know something about him but remains mysterious. Soon the bracelet begins to beep and light up and strange lights appear in the sky and start snatching people. The tough man and the woman join the posse of the craggily tyrant of the town (Harrison Ford) and go after the abductees.
This could have been a terrific piece of camp, and it doesn’t help that a vastly superior movie of alien invasion with its tongue in its cheek was released this year as a stark counterpoint (Attack the Block) but as a straight story it doesn’t work. Nobody’s having a good time, everybody’s dour faced. Aliens are invading the old west, what more excuse do you need for a little cheek?
While the movie is well-made and looks great, it’s so empty because it isn’t aware of its own ludicrousness. What’s missing is a Robert Downey Jr type who brought the right notes to director Jon Favreau’s Iron Man movies. Harrison Ford is a master at self-aware detachment in absurd surroundings but here he’s made mainly to scowl and dole out plot points. Daniel Craig does the best he can but what is he given to do? He’s amnesiac for much of the movie and when he finds out his past, he responds by a little extra clinching of his jaw. Aren’t any of these people astounded that aliens have come to their world? What do they think about any of this? Olivia Wilde is mainly wasted, we find out later that she is herself an alien who took her form to “walk amongst” us. Right, because a 90-pound, beautiful woman is the easiest way to blend in and survive in the old West. There is one character played by Paul Dano who has the kind of weird energy this movie requires but he’s ushered offstage halfway through the first act and isn’t seen again until the finale. This is a big, dumb, summer movie, how can we be expected to have any fun if the people in the picture aren’t?