Coming off the back of two hugely successful Iron Man movies for Marvel Studios, director Jon Favreau chose a high concept comic book adaptation as his next project, focusing on an alien invasion during the American Wild West of the late 19th Century. Produced by Steven Spielberg and Ron Howard, Cowboys & Aliens takes its premise from Scott Mitchell Rosenberg’s comic book series of the same name, however after going through eight credited screenwriters the final result bares little resemblance to its source material. The film’s biggest challenge, however, would be selling its original concept to the public, in a summer filled with sequels and superheroes, especially one with an unintentionally smirk-inducing title.
The film opens strongly, centring on a nameless gunslinger (Daniel Craig) who comes to in the desert – shot, beaten and with no recollection of his identity or what has happened to him. On his arm is a strange manacle that boasts a powerful extraterrestrial technology. The local community survives at the mercy of villainous rancher Col. Dollarhyde (Harrison Ford) and his errant son Percy (Paul Dano). However, when the town is besieged by an alien invasion and a number of their people are abducted, including Percy, they must band together against their common enemy.
Cowboys & Aliens plays it straight and is at its best when trying to be a genuine Western. Craig makes for an imposing anti-hero, channeling the strong silent outlaw type epitomised by Clint Eastwood. He is tough, sullen and weighed down by the shredded memories of a previous tragedy. As the story develops, it transpires he has both friends and enemies in the community, as well as unfinished business to which he must attend. While it is always a pleasure to see Harrison Ford on screen, he struggles to convince as the bad guy. As the film proceeds he becomes increasingly sympathetic, and in doing so comes closer to the gruff yet amiable screen persona he has nurtured over the past 35 years.
The aliens, however, fail to impress or terrify, and as a result weaken the second half of the film. Their reasons for abducting humans are confused and redundant, while their greater plan is all too convenient for the film’s period setting. Their physical appearance is also rather generic and unimaginative, leaving the film without a strong villain and therefore rather one-sided. Olivia Wilde’s character exists only for exposition and when getting naked fails to make her more interesting, it’s rather disconcerting. Likewise, Sam Rockwell, Keith Carradine and Clancy Brown are sorely underused as fellow villagers.
Defenders will argue that these characters wouldn’t be able to understand or explain the aliens and their intentions any better than they do here, but today’s audiences are far more savvy and demand something more from their interstellar invaders. While Cowboys & Aliens should be praised for its originality, it also highlights that a high concept can’t support a tent pole release all on its own.