Every summer movie season usually has at least one spectacular, disastrous flame-out, and although the dog days of August still loom, I doubt there will come a big-budget blockbuster worse than Cowboys and Aliens. What seemed highly promising in concept — a western in which aliens attack! — turns out to be a stultifying pileup of nonsense and stupidity, with way too many cowboys (and Indians and Mexicans and a scrappy mutt and a cute, brave orphan) and not nearly enough aliens.
The first sign of trouble comes during the opening credits, which reveal it took five screenwriters to adapt Scott Mitchell Rosenberg’s comic-book series into a film. I haven’t read the books, but seriously: How hard could it be to craft a story about a dusty town in the Old West besieged by aliens from another planet? The idea alone sells the picture. You’d have to actively want to screw up the premise in order to end up with the meandering, ridiculous film director Jon Favreau ( Swingers, Iron Man) has delivered. Never before has a movie made me think, “I wonder how Michael Bay would have handled this.”
Things start out promisingly, with an amnesiac gunslinger (Daniel Craig, who manages to emerge from this mess with his bad-ass aura unscathed) waking up in the middle of nowhere with nothing but a photo of a beautiful woman and a futuristic wristband strapped to his arm. He soon makes his way to a town that lives in fear of a cranky cattle rancher, Woodrow Dollarhyde (Harrison Ford, in a sad, wan performance). The Man With No Name discovers he’s actually Jake Lonergan and that he’s a bad, bad man, wanted for all sorts of crimes — arson, robbery, murder, you name it.
Before he can get hauled off to a federal prison, though, a squad of spaceships descends from the night sky, plucking the terrified townspeople via fishing lines and taking them . . . somewhere. Up until that point, Cowboys and Aliens is exactly the movie you hoped it would be. Favreau takes his time playing with familiar Western tropes and introducing us to the large cast of protagonists who will try to find the aliens’ lair and rescue the kidnapped victims. Handsomely shot by Matthew Libatique, the movie engages you even before the mean E.T.s show up.
If the characters happen to come right out of the stock character drawer — the beautiful love interest (Olivia Wilde); the timid saloonkeeper (Sam Rockwell); the seen-it-all sheriff (Keith Carradine); the mouthy young upstart (Paul Dano); the dutiful Native American liaison (Adam Beach) — the scenario is intriguing enough to make you look past the clichés. But then something happens: Just when the movie should start gathering momentum, Cowboys and Aliens grinds to a complete and excruciating halt. Instead of focusing on what we want to see — what do these aliens want, and where did they take all those people? — we get Jake struggling with his amnesia, ambushes by Native Americans, encounters with roving gangs of bandits and Wilde batting her eyelashes and making cow eyes at Craig. Not only is all of this stuff hackneyed — Favreau obviously relished the opportunity to recreate archetypal Western scenarios — but the thinness of the characters can’t support all the jabbering. The movie’s manipulations are blatantly obvious: A scene in which Ford is mean to his longtime loyal sidekick, then reveals a kinder side by giving a boy a slice of apple, exists only to let us know Woodrow isn’t really such a bad guy, and by film’s end will probably become a lovable hero. The set-up is so transparent, it’s insulting. I don’t expect a lot of subtlety from a movie called Cowboys and Aliens, but I don’t need to be treated like a moron, either.
Eventually — finally — Cowboys and Aliens gives you what you came to see, but there have been many alien invasion films recently, and the CGI effects here are so obvious, that the showdown between the good guys and the invaders is a huge anticlimax. By this point, the movie has edged into such nonsensical territory, Elmo could pop up firing off an Uzi, and he’d blend right in. The last 10 minutes of this movie are so bizarre and random, they give comic books a bad name. Steven Spielberg was an executive producer on Cowboys and Aliens, and I’d be willing to bet money he was on the set the day they shot a scene in which an alien pays our heroes a visit while they spend the night sheltered in a landlocked river cruiser. The framing and pacing of that scene — the camera placement, the gradual reveal of our first good look at one of the extra-terrestrials — is so well done, it’s tantalizing: In that scene, you can see the movie Cowboys and Aliens should have been. You know things are dire in Hollywood when even a surefire popcorn entertainment like this turns out to be so dull and misguided. Cowboys and Aliens has all the requisite elements except the most important one: A sense of fun.
Cast: Daniel Craig, Harrison Ford, Olivia Wilde, Sam Rockwell, Adam Beach, Paul Dano, Noah Ringer, Keith Carradine, Walton Goggins, Clancy Brown.
Director: Jon Favreau.
Screenwriters: Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman, Damon Lindelof, Mark Fergus, Hawk Ostby.
Producers: Brian Grazer, Ron Howard, Alex Kurtzman.
A Universal Pictures release. Running time: 121 minutes. Vulgar language, violence. Playing at: area theaters.