Brandishing a literal-minded title as laughable as the rest of its action, Cowboys & Aliens mashes up genres with a staunch dedication to getting everything wrong, making sure that each scene is more inane than the one that preceded it. This hybrid of an oater and an extraterrestrial-invasion saga opens with Jake (Daniel Craig) awakening in the 1873 Arizona desert with a mysterious metal bracelet on his wrist and no idea who he is or how he got there. A run-in with three bandits proves that he knows how to kick ass, however, and after an altercation with the cocky son (Paul Dano) of cattle baron Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford) in a struggling mining town lands him in deep trouble, he discovers that his newfound high-tech jewelry has a purpose—namely, to help him laser-blast insectoid spaceships, which bombard the community with explosive blasts and use glowing cables to snatch up citizens and take them to whereabouts unknown. Thus Jake, Dolarhyde, and a few random others—saloon owner Doc (Sam Rockwell), Dolarhyde’s Native American servant Nat (Adam Beach), and enigmatic beauty Ella (Olivia Wilde)—set out in search of their seized brethren, a quest that leads them from a fake-looking frontier town across generic scraggly plains to similarly bogus stage sets, including an upside-down riverboat in the desert and an E.T. compound hidden amid the mountains.
On the basis of his directorial oeuvre, no one would have mistaken Jon Favreau for John Ford, yet Cowboys & Aliens‘s western accoutrements are still so false as to be stunning, with every steely-eyed glare from Craig’s Man With No Memory, every confrontation between his Jake and Ford’s grizzled Dolarhyde, and every silhouetted horseback ride across a sunset range seeming like a wan approximation of a familiar genre staple. Despite collaborating with expert DP Matthew Libatique, Favreau’s visuals have an inauthentic and bland blockbuster sheen, and his actors are similarly afflicted with a case of poseur-itis (Craig’s affected silent-type glowering, Ford’s gruff racism, or Wilde’s blank, wide-eyed stares), failing to deliver a single believable line-reading or gesture. It’s all so much high-gloss make-believe incapable of establishing any foundational element of its fiction, which proves troublesome once the script (based on Scott Mitchell Rosenberg’s 2006 graphic novel) begins straddling the line between gunslinger showdowns and out-of-this-world craziness. That involves lots of wannabe-scary sequences in which low light strives to mask the technically so-so, imaginatively mediocre aliens themselves—roaring humanoid monsters whose sole distinguishing trait is a ridiculously useless set of extra arms that are hidden inside their chest cavity and, when used, leave their hearts completely vulnerable to attack.
These creatures have apparently come to Earth to mine for gold, which, when coupled with their desire to eradicate the indigenous population, makes them just like the human miners who distrust the area’s Native Americans—except, however, that humans are depicted as having the capacity to change their xenophobic ways, as Dolarhyde does in a late act of gag-inducing Kumbaya mushiness. Yet if Dolarhyde’s change of heart reeks of contrived political-correctness pandering, it’s no more off-putting than the sheer illogicality of the aliens’ strategy of abducting people so they can study their weaknesses, as if 19th-century folk with a few rifles had any real strengths comparable to these beings’ physical superiority and plethora of airships and energy canons. Jake’s Iron Man-ish laser blaster is a cheap means of leveling the battlefield, and a revelation about Ella is such a knuckleheaded way of giving the cowboys further crucial informational and tactical advantages that, alongside its counterfeit atmosphere and performances, Cowboys & Aliens soon seems actively interested in seeing how far it can push itself into phoniness. The answer is way too far, though there’s some camp humor to be had in a ride-into-the-sunset finale that leaves open the possibility for a Railroad Tycoons & More Aliens sequel.