At least when it comes to its title, “Cowboys & Aliens” delivers. There are indeed both cowboys and interplanetary travelers.
It also delivers a seemingly peerless pedigree. Steven Spielberg is a producer, as are Ron Howard and Brian Grazer. Jon Favreau -- coming off “Iron Man” and its sequel -- directed. And the stars are genuine big names -- Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford, rather than the no-name newbies populating so many of this summer’s other would-be blockbusters.
All of which adds up to a competently made, big budget, special effects-driven action film that will satisfy those looking merely for a plenitude of fist fights, shootings, stuff blowing up and hostile alien monsters.
What’s lacking is a sizable jolt of wacky fun or the shock of the new or, even, compelling characters.
Set in the New Mexico Territory in 1875, it begins promisingly with the camera lovingly panning a bleak western landscape. Suddenly, Craig pops up from the bottom edge of the screen as his character, groggy and dusty, sits up. Clearly just coming to, he’s puzzled to find himself with a mysterious thick metal bracelet encircling one wrist and a gaping wound near his waist.
He cannot, try though he might, remember who he is, what happened or how he got there. Or remove the bracelet
Turns out, he’s Jake Lonergan, and he’s a wanted man. Both he and we discover this when he heads into the nearby town of Absolution (get it?), where he comes up against Col. Dolarhyde (Ford), a wealthy cattleman who rules the town; Ella (Olivia Wilde), a mysterious young woman with a keen interest in Jake; the local sheriff (Keith Carradine); an assimilated Native American (Adam Beach); and the saloon keeper (Sam Rockwell).
Faster than you can load a Winchester rifle, alien spacecraft -- this is 1875, remember, so actually any spacecraft would be alien -- are strafing Absolution. Even worse, the craft are swooping down with long metal cables, hooking folk and lifting them skyward. By daybreak, Jake and the Colonel are leading a posse on horseback in pursuit of the aliens.
“C&A” is most effective and amusing when it is plumbing the clichés of cowboy movies and goosing them, as in when Jake, galloping on horseback, attempts to outrace an alien plane. The sci-fi half of the film is disappointingly ho-hum and familiar, drawing on “Alien,” “Independence Day” and a score of other films from the past couple decades.
Really, by now, if you’ve seen one goo-drooling alien monster, you’ve seen them all.
Characters are so sketchily drawn that little is really at stake here. Everything simply lurches forward in episodic fashion, with cowboys going after aliens being pretty much the sum total of the movie’s plot. (This despite five credited screenwriters, two of whom along with a third devised the screen story, which they in turn adapted from a 2006 graphic novel by Scott Mitchell Rosenberg.)
As for the cast, Craig does just fine as a strong silent type. He’s not as suave here as he is when portraying James Bond, but he’s admirably stoic and, given the chance, wrings laughs where possible. Ford, playing a bossy old cuss, has the most fun of anyone, maybe because he knows he’s no longer responsible for carrying a franchise on his shoulders. Wilde isn’t handed many acting challenges but looks fetching in calico and scrambles up and down cliffs nimbly.
In the end, “C&A” is a movie for a Saturday night rather than one for the ages. It has one great idea, its title, but then comes up mostly empty.
And that’s too bad because the western, a Hollywood staple since 1903’s “The Great Train Robbery,” has proven itself adaptable and resilient over the years, able to accommodate allegories and comment on current times. But all “C&A” does is illustrate how mechanical and intellectually lackluster movies have become in the age of global-minded studios.