First, the good news - Harrison Ford does good work in COWBOYS & ALIENS. He's fun to watch and he seems to be enjoying himself. This film is definitely in his wheelhouse and he plays to his strengths. The cinematography by Matthew Libatique is lush and gorgeous; the film looks like they spent the money on it. What problems the film has are centered around writing and characterization, and you'd think that with 5 credited writers that some of these fundamental issues would have been hammered out. There are deep issues with COWBOYS & ALIENS and it can't live up to the full potential of the premise of the film.
Jake Lonergan (Daniel Craig) wakes up in the middle of the desert, wounded in the side, with no memory of who he is, and a strange metallic bracelet on his left arm. In the nearby town of Absolution Lonergan manages to find a local preacher (Clancy Brown) to patch him up. Absolution is ruled by Colonel Woodrow Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford) a cattle baron and former army commander in the Civil War. His son Percy (Paul Dano) embarrasses him but he stands by his family. Turns out Lonergan and his crew robbed Dolarhyde of his gold, and Dolarhyde wants payback. Lonergan has no memory of the robbery, and as he's being arrested and taken to the federal marshal strange glowing things appear in the night sky. Suddenly Absolution is under attack by an alien fleet and much of the town is abducted, including Percy and the local bartender's (Sam Rockwell) wife. Dolarhyde forms a posse to get their townspeople back, and Lonergan, with the help of a mysterious barmaid (Olivia Wilde), must try to remember his past and how to stop this seemingly insurmountable force.
I don't have any issues with the film's concept. I like mash-ups. The best genre films love to throw all the variables together and see what sticks. COWBOYS & ALIENS is no different in that respect - it's certainly not the first film to use this kind of concept, and probably won't be the last. But it's the connective tissue that needs so much work. Characters seem to change motivation practically mid-speech. Dolarhyde, in particular, is introduced as something of a corrupt land baron, and then once the aliens attack he's practically a teddy bear. Lonergan seems to come from villainous stock himself, but wipe his memory and he becomes mysterious and enigmatic. There's nothing wrong with disparate characters coming together to fight off another threat and learn to be friends in the meantime; we've seen it before many times. But even if it seems laborious to go through those story motions it's never clearer than in COWBOYS & ALIENS that those moments matter and you can't simply rush through them. The characters of the film don't earn the friendship - once the aliens attack, nothing else matters.
Plus, the film just isn't much fun. Once the posse leaves Absolution to find their lost townspeople, the film becomes dour, except for a few scenes. One scene in particular, when Craig tries to rescue Wilde's character from an alien collector ship, is fast, scary, and thrilling, and the joy on Lonergan's face when he says, "We were flying!" is palpable. But there's not enough moments like that. I like the aliens and their concept, even if they don't make a lot of evolutionary sense. I also like how Jon Favreau insists on showing the aliens as much as he can instead of keeping them in the shadows. But there doesn't seem to be much room for humor in the film except in small amounts.
The performances vary across the board. As I mentioned before, Harrison Ford seems to be having a good time; even when his character's all over the map tonally, Ford brings it in well. Olivia Wilde just doesn't work. She's Mysterious Expositional Barmaid, and her back story could have been handled much better. Daniel Craig's Western accent took some getting used to, but he's tough when it counts and he's a very believable hero. My favorite character was Clancy Brown's Meacham - Brown seems to get the fun of the film even if others do not.
COWBOYS & ALIENS runs hot and cold. There's enough terrific imagery and action that I think most audiences will enjoy it, but the film feels like there's something missing and that it could have been so much more. Jon Favreau wanted to make a classic Western, but he doesn't shake up the archetypes enough to find something new in the genre, and just shoehorning an alien invasion isn't enough. It's not a terrible film by any means, but you can see the film struggling against its limitations and never quite breaking past them. It's hard to say where the problem lies - too many writers, perhaps? - but the film can't seem to find a consistent tone with the plot and the characters and in the end doesn't get there. I wish the film had brought more fun into it - as it is, COWBOYS & ALIENS takes itself too seriously for the subject matter. It needed, in short, to lighten up.