Cowboys & Aliens is the highest of high concepts. Its entire premise is contained in its title, which, in the classic manner, could be scribbled on the back of a postcard. Unfortunately, the filmmakers have mailed that postcard off to nowhere.
Remarkably, it required six writers (and 16 producers, among them Steven Spielberg and Ron Howard) to turn a slim 2006 graphic novel into a movie. The book, by Scott Mitchell Rosenberg, Fred Van Lente, and Andrew Foley, takes an interesting narrative stance, setting up an alien invasion of the Old West in 1873 as a mirror of the earlier invasion of North America by European settlers. For some reason–presumably time constraint–the movie has ditched this element of the story. Which leaves us with, well, cowboys and aliens.
The picture begins with a man named Jake Lonergan (Daniel Craig) waking up bruised and wounded in some parched canyon lands. An intricate metal cuff is affixed to his left wrist, and he’s also carrying a photograph of a woman he doesn’t know. But then he doesn’t know his own name, either. When three surly lowlifes approach on horseback, Jake, being Daniel Craig, overwhelms them in a spasm of furious butt-kicking. He makes his way to a shabby mining town that has fallen on hard times (the gold ran out). After a violent encounter with a gun-waving punk named Percy (Paul Dano), Jake draws the attention of both a mysterious young woman named Ella (Olivia Wilde) and the town sheriff (Keith Carradine), who recognizes Jake from a wanted poster and tosses him in jail. Then Percy’s angry father, Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford), the local cattle baron, arrives in search of the man who whupped his no-good son…among other things I’ll not go into.
While all of these characters are contentiously interacting, a big spaceship cruises in over the mountains and unleashes alien fighter planes that begin strafing the town and lassoing (!) its inhabitants for transport back to the mothership for more intimate examination. Before long, the townsfolk have allied themselves with an Apache warrior tribe to ward off the extraterrestrial attackers. And so forth.
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