Cowboys & Aliens is one of the silliest movies ever made, but so many otherwise serious people have attached their names to it that, as Arthur Miller wrote in Death of a Salesman, attention must be paid. Steven Spielberg and Ron Howard are among the tangle of producers whose credits stretch from here to the next millennium, the idiotic screenplay boasts no fewer than five writers, and although I cannot imagine this farcical fusion of two separate film genres (science fiction and the Western) appealing to anyone over the age of 12, the two marquee lures at the top of the cast list are not exactly part of the bubble gum brigade. So with all the elements in place, another in a long line of cinematic comic books could be a surprise hit as it reaches its target audience, right up there next to the abysmal Captain America. Never underestimate the desperation of summer moviegoers to escape reality no matter how much they trash their I.Q.’s. They’ll do anything to get out of a heat wave.
Too bad Mr. Spielberg didn’t also direct, instead of Jon Favreau, a terrible TV actor (Robot Chicken) who has somehow morphed into helming third-rate movies (Iron Man). He doesn’t show a single shred of originality as he piles on the clichés in a parody of everything from The Big Country to It Came from Outer Space, but the one Cowboys & Aliens owes the most to is the low-budget and forgotten The Dead and the Damned, in which a meteor lands in the middle of the California Gold Rush and turns everyone into zombies. The result here is equally hilarious, but Cowboys & Aliens works best when it plays it straight (an idea of Harrison Ford’s) instead of campy. And so, from time to time, it actually holds one’s attention between the episodes of violence and carnage.
One morning in the 1870s, Daniel Craig wakes up with amnesia in the desert near Absolution, Ariz. (played by New Mexico), wearing a strange metal bracelet attached to his wrist that looks like unisex jewelry at the Newport Beach art show. He has no memory of who he is or where he came from. He’s filthy, splattered with blood and barefoot, but with a great haircut. Riding alone into town like Shane, he quickly attracts the attention of a vicious, ruthless cattle baron named Colonel Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford), his maniacal son (hysterically overacted by the pickle-faced Paul Dano), a comely barfly named Ella (Olivia Wilde), an honest but outnumbered sheriff (Keith Carradine), a well-meaning preacher (Clancy Brown), a nervous, nerdy saloon keeper who needs a Valium (Sam Rockwell) and an Indian cowhand (Adam Beach).
When the Unknown Man is suddenly recognized as the face on the wanted poster in the local jail—a feared stagecoach robber named Jake Lonergan—the sheriff makes plans to cart him off to the federal marshal. But this is a Western, see, so Shane doesn’t die. Thirty minutes into what looks like a routine sagebrush saga, the shackle on Mr. Craig’s arm lights up, a space ship blows up the town, and a monster from another planet abducts half the citizens, including the colonel’s rabid son, Percy. (A homicidal maniac named Percy? These are the laughs, kids.) Mr. Ford and Mr. Craig have no choice but to pool their two-fisted talents in a rescue mission, form a posse and track the monster to a canyon of death. The rest of the movie is John Ford meets The Twilight Zone. Oh, did I forget to mention the Apaches? It wouldn’t be a Western without the Indians. They join the fray too—but what good is a tomahawk against $50 million of computer-generated special effects designed by George Lucas? The penultimate showdown, between the alien invaders and the Roy Rogers boots, spurs, arrows and six-guns, is noisy but less thrilling than expected. Still, the movie aims for nothing but entertainment, and I must admit it’s fun watching two grizzled roughnecks go at it like they were doing something meaningful and important.
What, in the final analysis, is it all about? It seems the extraterrestrial creatures, who seem to know a lot about the stock market, are looking for gold. In the funniest line in the picture, Harrison Ford wrinkles his face of solid granite and snarls: “Well, that is ridiculous! What are they going to do—buy something?”
COWBOYS & ALIENS
Running time 118 minutes
Written by Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman, Damon Lindelof, Mark Fergus and Hawk Ostby
Directed by Jon Favreau
Starring Harrison Ford, Daniel Craig, Paul Dano and Olivia Wilde