I appreciate the title Cowboys & Aliens. It has no pretense and puts the viewer on immediate notice of what to expect. I was tantalized by the promise of cowboys and aliens duking it out in the Old West and excited to see this film. But sadly the film completely missed its mark.
Jake Lonergan awakens in the desert with no memory and an odd contraption around his wrist. He swaggers into town and is immediately put in jail after his face is recognized from a “wanted” poster. That evening, the small town of Dispatch is attacked by alien ships, many townspeople are abducted, and the town is almost completely destroyed. Lonergan, with the help of the device on his wrist, destroys one of the the alien vessels. Seeking answers about his past, he agrees to join an expedition to find the aliens and recover the lost.
The plot is the film’s main fault. The basic premise is solid, fresh and interesting. However, the screenwriters stuffed the two hours with countless sub-plots, bogged down with emotional transformations and touching interludes, all of which fall completely flat and lead to a ridiculous conclusion. The lack of cohesive plot and story makes the film feel frustratingly pointless.
The concept is further hampered by weak characters and development, who continually take actions and make decisions completely inconsistent with their roles. Many moments intended to warm the audience’s souls, such as the awkward softness from the hardened rancher, felt completely out of place. The lack of depth left me indifferent to the characters and the predictable outcome.
However, the acting from Daniel Craig and Sam Rockwell is fairly solid; had their characters been properly developed, they would have provided a strong emotional core for the film. Both performances stand out amongst the others—Craig as the amnesiac outlaw seeking to rediscover his past and Rockwell as the timid bartender willing to do anything to save his wife. The acting from Harrison Ford, unfortunately, is a different story. Ford trots about the screen, growling each line, his performance as one-dimensional as the character he portrays: the loathsome rancher seeking to rescue his son. It’s quite sad and disturbing to see such a talented actor being squandered in that role.
Many of the characters spew rather frequent profanities, and also engage in making crude and sexual comments. Another caution-worthy scene suggests complete nudity although nothing is actually shown.
The action scenes are fun, but shockingly sparse. I definitely was expecting much more fighting. The climactic battle is only somewhat satisfying as it barely generates any suspense.
But the film looks outstanding, like a true piece of cinematic art. Every shot is beautiful. Barren desert landscapes fill the screen, the shots of reddish sandstone, covered in sparse shrubbery, contrasting sharply with the azure sky. Strong special effects help maintain interest, and the aliens were well-animated and looked creepy and vile.
Harry Gregson-Williams’ score is excellent. The cadence of the pieces is familiar, echoing the scores of Westerns past—but with a twist. The opening track stood out in particular as the twang of the banjo was replaced by the sound of synthesized guitars. The retro themes mixed with the modern instruments fit perfectly with the theme of Old West meets outer space.
Cowboys & Aliens is a mess. The story could have been campy and fun but instead it’s overloaded, incomprehensible and frustrating. The acting is uneven from great stars and the character development is non-existent. There is also very little action. It irks me to see such a great concept wasted in such a fashion. Miss it.