Cowboys & Aliens has been in development as a film, in one form or another, for over 14 years, and yet in all that time nobody managed to turn it into a script that's worth a damn. At the very least, this film's assortment of six credited writers-- including boldface names Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci-- weren't up to the task, taking the immediately tantalizing premise of gunslingers versus space creatures and watering it down with a whole mess of plot and characters that go nowhere. Notable actors slip in and out of the narrative, character conflicts are teed up and immediately shoved away, and the entire showdown between the title groups feels not earned, just inevitable. The brief flashes of quality in the overlong film only emphasize the many other disappointments.
One of those good parts takes up the film's first 30 minutes, which makes it even harder not to be frustrated by what comes next. A man with no name (Daniel Craig) wakes up in the desert, bruised and battered and with no memory of who he is or how he got there. Startled by four men on horseback he responds with calculated, almost immediate violence, and soon arrives in a town called Absolution with the guns and clothes that recently belonged to his assailants. It doesn't take him long to cross paths with snot-nosed rich boy Percy (Paul Dano), and there's a real pleasure in watching Craig dispatch him with a sneer and a well-timed knee to the crotch. When Percy's dad comes back to town to defend him, it turns out he's the cattle baron Dolarhyde, played by Harrison Ford and a guy even our nameless hero probably wouldn't want to tangle with.
Actually, he already did-- Craig's character is identified as Jake Lonergan, a wanted criminal who recently robbed Dolarhyde, and who is locked up with Percy in a paddywagon en route to the state marshal when Dolarhyde arrives in town. So far we're par for the Western course and ready for a showdown, except that's when the aliens arrive-- glowing lights on the horizon that turn into tentacled ships that kidnap half the townspeople and cause a lot of cool explosions. Among the missing are Percy and the wife of a local bartender (Sam Rockwell), and since Lonergan has vague flashbacks that suggest his own wife might have been taken by these beasts too, it's not long before we've got ourselves a posse on a recovery mission.
Everything we've got so far is what a great Western needs, a group of unlikely allies thrown together on a mission, including a mysterious hero (Craig), a gruff man of the law (Ford), a meek guy in glasses (Rockwell), an enthusiastic kid (Noah Ringer), and even a Native American thrown in for good measure (Adam Beach). Being a 21st-century blockbuster Cowboys & Aliens also has an elusive female played by Olivia Wilde, but despite her best efforts and genuine charms, her character is mostly saddled with great chunks of exposition that drag the film to a stop. Instead of focusing on these characters and how they'll come together as a team, Cowboys & Aliens gets wrapped up in details about the aliens and groups of side characters we don't care about, widening its scope and bogging itself down with plot at the exact point in the film it needed to tighten up and fly.
Each of the actors brings their own charms to their roles, and it's especially great to see Ford doing a little less sleepwalking than usual, but none of the relationships between characters are properly developed, leaving the actors nothing to bounce off of besides the hopelessly generic CGI alien foes. And Jon Favreau, who I genuinely once believed had the potential to be a great director, is nowhere without a script to work with, blandly moving the camera and setting up the action sequences without adding any juice to the proceedings. He's playing with so many genre tropes, from men charging on horseback in the desert to the "storming the castle" grand finale, but despite the film's wry premise he doesn't bother tweaking any of them. In the end it's neither a Western nor an alien film, really, just another Hollywood blockbuster massaged and pruned within an inch of its life to please an audience that deserved a decent story above all else.