A gunslinger with a dark past. A pretty girl on a mysterious mission. A grizzled rancher with a spoiled son, and a dusty, destitute town on the edge of civilization. Since the earliest days of motion pictures, Hollywood Westerns have mined gold from a handful of endlessly recyclable genre elements. This summer, it decided to add a new one to the mix: space aliens.
Conceptually, "Cowboys & Aliens" is a simple cinematic mashup, part throwback Western, part noisy alien-invasion blockbuster. Like "Snakes on a Plane," the title is designed to tell you most everything you need to know: It's a movie about cowboys who meet aliens. The rest, the filmmakers clearly hope, you can already guess.
If only that were true. Beyond the titular concept, the movie still has a few tricks packed in its saddlebags. But the filmmakers struggle to ride their successful setup all the way to a satisfying conclusion, and by the time this one gallops off into the sunset, it's a relief. In the end, you're probably better off staying home and imagining the clever genre combo that could've been.
Director Jon Favreau starts promisingly, cultivating an air of Hitchcockian intrigue: In 1873, a lone man (Daniel Craig) wakes up in the barren desert. He doesn't know his name, or where he came from, but he's wearing a strange looking bracelet. After making his way to town, he finds out his name - Lonergan - and that he's a wanted man. He's also being pursued by a beautiful woman named Ella (the porcelain-skinned, perpetually wide-eyed Olivia Wilde), who's on a secret mission of her own.
It wouldn't be a sad old Western town without a menacing foil or two. For that, the movie turns to a gruff, sadistic rancher named Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford) and his belligerent, bullying son Percy (Paul Dano).
It doesn't take long before the various forces collide in the town square. Tension builds. There's a standoff. And that's when the aliens show up - and the movie takes a turn for the worse.
The carefully cultivated intrigue of the opening scenes becomes steadily less engaging as Lonergan, Dolarhyde, and a band of townsfolk inevitably traipse off after the extraterrestrials, who've made off with a number of the townsfolk, including Dolarhyde's son.
The aliens also manage to make off with any brewing tension between the two leads. When we first meet Dolarhyde, he's in the midst of torturing one of his own men. Mr. Ford sneers and rasps with delightful cartoon viciousness. Mr. Craig, meanwhile, gives Lonergan a sturdy, squinty cool - he's a man of purpose, poise and violence.
The forced team-up between the two ought to be as scorching the desert sun. But Dolarhyde instantly transforms into a crusty but lovable father figure. Mr. Craig, meanwhile, keeps his cool - perhaps a little too much. Neither he nor any of the characters seem terribly baffled by the presence of the aliens, reacting, instead, as if they're just another hazard of the Wild West.
Of course, there's not much to wonder about. The ETs on display are slimy, personality-free brutes who show up just often enough to ensure that the movie meets the mandatory explosion quota for a summer sci-fi blockbuster. And aside from Lonergan, Dolarhyde, and Ella, the townsfolk - even the bartender played by the usually engaging Sam Rockwell - are equally unmemorable. In the end, it's a movie about cowboys and aliens that gives short shrift to both.
TITLE: "Cowboys & Aliens"
CREDITS: Directed by Jon Favreau, screenplay by Robert Orci, Alex Kurtzman, Damon Lindelof, Mark Fergus, and Hawk Ostby
RUNNING TIME: 118 minutes
RATING: PG-13 for slimy alien attacks
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS