A man (Daniel Craig) wakes up in the wilderness with a metal bracelet attached to his arm, but no memory of who he is or how he got there. Wandering into a town, it becomes clear that he is known by the townspeople, and wanted by the law and the local cattle baron. When the town is attacked by strangle flying machines, the locals, fugitive included, must band together to rescue their kidnapped loved ones. But there is more to the aliens' scheme, and one of the townswomen (played by Olivia Wilde) seems to know a lot more than anyone else.
What we thought:
Some readers might remember weird discontinuity in the theatrical version of Alien 3, when Paul McGann's "Golic" character changes accents in mid-scene, and later simply disappears without explanation. Commentators put it down to shooting without a completed script. Cowboys & Aliens seems to suffer from the opposite problem – it has too much script and not enough time to say it all.
Cowboys & Aliens – the end result – isn't too interested in being much more than a film about... well, cowboys and aliens. Literally, there's a bunch of cowboys who have to fight a bunch of aliens. The intricacies of the plot have the strands of a great story, but these are never woven into a captivating showpiece.
The cast and crew are hugely impressive – perhaps too impressive; a gang of eight writers, six executive producers and nine producers is way too much for an action movie. Each has had his idea accepted and curtailed in this movie obviously, the result being plot points and story arcs coming and going abruptly – like the death of a major character.
In one scene the dog (who is never referred to by name in the movie, but for all intents will be our "Golic"), seems to have come to a bad end. Later in the film, the dog reappears in good health, hanging around with a group of people it had never even met before. This and other abrupt plot skip-aheads smacks of serious script revision at the expense of pacing and characters that you'd care about.
There's also no sense of high adventure in the film's sombre tone. Ironically, the feel of Harrison Ford's Indiana Jones films might have been a more appropriate, but both Ford and Craig seem intent on playing dark and moody ruffians, as opposed to lovable, dastardly rogues.
In the supporting cast, Olivia Wilde is all bright green eyes, Sam Rockwell is better but ultimately muted as Doc, Adam Beach evokes the only sympathy worth mentioning, while genre legends Clancy Brown and Keith Carradine are criminally underused.
The premise of mashing the wild wild west with an alien invasion story sounds juicy. There's lots of potential humour, high-octane action, nostalgic genre-surfing, and even quasi-philosophy to be milked from the general idea. But the lack of much of the above works against Cowboys & Aliens attracting a younger audience, and for older watchers the film just jerks along like it's in the wrong gear.
Cowboys & Aliens is ultimately a disappointment, especially given its star and production power. It's a decent-enough date movie, but is as disposable as the extra deputies in a Clint Eastwood western, and only half as compelling as many of them.