This time around, the Iron Man helmer turns his attention towards a band of frontier folk who find themselves tussling with some unidentifiable flying objects who have stolen members of their community for equally mysterious purposes. A gunslinger (Daniel Craig) who is suffering from amnesia awakens in the desert to find his right wrist is attached to his some kind of otherworldly artifact which he is unable to pry open and remove. Setting foot in the one-horse town of Absolution, he immediately makes his presence known by tangling with the son of the town’s rich and powerful cattleman, Colonel Woodrow Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford). Both are arrested and when daddy shows up to try and intervene and stop his son being carted away (alongside Craig) to court, the town is suddenly besieged by an array of large, laser-firing aircrafts, which proceed to turn the place into a fiery wreck, whilst scooping up a number of townsfolk, including Dolarhyde’s son and the local, mild-mannered saloon owner’s wife.
Finding tracks belonging to a creature from one of the invader’s ships, a posse head out at sunrise, intent on retrieving their stolen family members and loved-ones. Dolarhyde ropes in the stranger to help them (he is suffering from flashbacks which reveal snippets of the alien environment) and a mysterious girl from the town (Tron Legacy’s Olivia Wilde), who appears to know more about the situation than she cares to divulge.
The title alone gives you a clear idea of what’s in store here, and the coupling of those two diverse genres actually works well for the most part. These characters are from an age before modern science and pop culture permeated down through the masses, giving us endless stories of supposed other forms of life beyond the stars, and there’s a fun stoicism to the cowboys as they track down this mysterious force of which they have zero knowledge or reference of. However, this can’t quite disguise the flimsiest of premises and ultimately, a formulaic script which doesn’t offer enough surprises (neither the western and sci-fi tropes interwoven throughout offer anything much in the way of originality) to really stand out from the crowd.
Favreau, unsurprisingly, manages to coax some strong performances out of his starry cast. Ford (who seems to be still carrying some of that gruffness left over from his role in Morning Glory) is always a welcome addition to films of this nature (excluding ‘Crystal Skulls’, of course), but even so, he has to wrestle with some wonky character continuity and actions, an issue which Wilde also suffers a little bit from. Craig is pretty solid, and cuts a lean, mean, figure, although there’s always that nagging doubt which leaves you thinking original lead Robert Downey Jr. may have brought a lightness of touch that the film (and character) needs. Rounding out the cast is the saloon proprietor, Sam Rockwell, bringing his normal reliable and likable quality to the film (and let’s face it, who wouldn’t love to have him serve booze for them at their local watering hole?)
Cowboys & Aliens is still a decent enough adventure flick for the most part, but for a film of this scope, and one which is chock-full of figures from the industry, many of whom have a solid track record for churning out big, audience-friendly hits from the past (Ron Howard and Imagine partner Brian Grazer are onboard as producers, while the big cheese himself, Steven Spielberg, is credited as executive producer) it’s all the more disappointing that this isn’t THE film of the summer.
While there are a couple of admittedly thrilling set-pieces (the terrifying alien attack on the town is well-crafted and a huge, upturned boat which has been left slap bang in the middle of the desert by the unwelcome ET’s, offers a surreal and wondrous sight), they can’t disguise the meagre plot and an unimaginative alien species (their lair, look and even the meaning behind their decision to come to earth, echoes that of the other big-profile creature feature of this summer, Super 8).
Many may enjoy what’s on offer here, and it’s certainly an enjoyable romp for a Saturday night out at the local multiplex. Just don’t go in there expecting to see much originality or freshness – something which would have been welcomed and embraced in yet another season crammed with the overly familiar.