With Cowboys & Aliens, you get two B-movies for the price of one.
A creature feature and a Western glued together with a great big slab of cheese, Cowboys & Aliens is a weird hybrid involving high drama and gimmicky sci-fi rubbish. It's overlong and over-complicated in that special way that stories with no story to them often are, but the film never falters in its main purpose, which is to entertain. This is the quintessential summer blockbuster, and for the most part, it's a lot of fun. Want butter with that?
Daniel Craig stars as Jake Lonergan, a ne'er-do-well who wakes up wounded with no memory of how he got that way. The setting is 19th century Arizona. With a bad gash on his side, a strange metal bracelet on his wrist and a woman's picture tucked into his hat, our confused cowboy wanders into the town of Absolution. There, the sheriff is happy to identify the amnesiac cowpoke as a criminal and a wanted man.
Lonergan stays around long enough to antagonize the son of Colonel Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford), a mean S.O.B. who runs the town. Just as he and Dolarhyde's son (Paul Dano) are getting hauled off to jail, the town is attacked by weird flying machines that spit fire and wreak havoc. They also send down metal lariats that yank humans skyward into their machines. Round 'em up!
Lonergan discovers that his weird metal bracelet is actually a weapon capable of blowing the enemy out of the sky. A local woman named Ella (Olivia Wilde) is shadowing Lonergan, trying to find out more about him. When Lonergan shoots down a space vehicle and some sort of alien creature emerges and escapes, Ella joins the men who volunteer to hunt it down. Tracking the wounded alien unites all manner of warring factions, including the snarky Colonel Dolarhyde and his posse of thugs, Lonergan's old criminal gang and a group of hitherto hostile native Americans. All those perceived as bad guys become good guys against a common enemy.
Cowboys & Aliens may have plenty of moldy dialogue and ludicrous plot turns, but it also has an endless supply of terrific things to look at -- Lonergan's colourful memory flashbacks, scary alien special effects and plenty of rugged and beautiful landscape, just for starters. Visually, it's never disappointing. As for the performances, Daniel Craig makes everyone else look a bit silly by comparison, but it's good to see Harrison Ford back in the saddle, and you can't argue with a cast that includes Sam Rockwell, Keith Carradine and Adam Beach. Cowboys & Aliens collapses under the weight of its own story by the third act, but there seems to be enough good stuff in there to satisfy most viewers. This might be the place to point out that more than three writers on a film is almost always a bad sign. Cowboys & Aliens has nine credited writers. We're just sayin'.