'Cowboys and Aliens': Stop Thinking

It's never done anybody any good to fault a movie for being high-concept in and of itself, especially when it has a title like Cowboys & Aliens. Based on a graphic novel of the same name (based itself on a failed movie pitch I like to imagine consisted only of those same three words, followed by an expectant pause), Jon Favreau's sci-fi Western does precisely what it promises: It takes two genres and bashes their conventions up against each other for two hours, hoping for some sort of spark but mostly settling for the noise of the banging.

For the first 20 minutes, there are only cowboys, though one (Daniel Craig) has just woken up with amnesia and some sort of steampunk cuff on his wrist. He staggers into the town of Absolution, N.M., proves himself a stone-cold badass to a handful of colorful townsfolk (including a makeup-caked Olivia Wilde, whose woozy performance through the first half deserves its own spoiler alert) and draws the ire of an already cranky-looking Harrison Ford.

Then come the aliens. Favreau plays the first contact nicely: Soon after riders bearing torches charge into town, another warm flicker appears on the same horizon, and seconds later an airborne raiding party is bombing the town and snatching up anyone who isn't a movie star. (Also, that thing on Craig's wrist is some sort of pulse cannon. Who knew?) The premise asserts itself well, leaving the survivors agape and taking their attackers for demons. For a moment it even seems that things might take a promising turn into close-quarters survival territory, but we aren't watching that kind of movie. We are watching a movie that just wants to riff on The Searchers and Independence Day at the same time.

Real imagination pops up here and there—a capsized steamboat miles from the nearest river makes for a creepy set—but for the most part Cowboys & Aliens is as unabashedly broad as summer movies get. Making that enjoyable isn't something that the director of Iron Man and the writers of J.J. Abrams' Star Trek reboot ought to have trouble with. But the broadness of those movies was a big part of their wit; Cowboys & Aliens puts broadness and wit at odds with each other, and all the charm leaks out as a result. Favreau's got popcorn-movie chops, but neither he nor his generally qualified cast ever really finds anything about the material to latch onto. Sam Rockwell, as a bartender/doctor, is given a structurally comic role but never has anything funny to do or say. (Meanwhile, Harrison Ford steps 15 percent out of his comfort zone and gets a full return on his investment.)

Not even Cowboys & Aliens' novelty, a crucial element, survives its tonelessness. Working so broadly in two such well-worn genres leaves the film trudging deeper into cliché, from the aliens' hookless motivations to perfunctory encounters with bandits and Indians, as the final showdown approaches. (As hackneyed as it may have been to use the natives for obvious thematic purposes, introducing them as shrieking savages and then trying—inertly—to dignify them as anything but cannon fodder is high on the eye-roll scale, and mildly offensive to boot.) Most people will decide to see Cowboys & Aliens because it's very specifically something they haven't seen before, but there's enough archetype drifting around to make the audience take for granted how individual scenes will end, let alone the movie itself.

Still, Cowboys & Aliens isn't a total waste of an air-conditioned afternoon, if only because of its earnestness. Even a more thoughtful variation on the material would have run the risk of being too arch or self-aware, but there's hardly a cynical moment in Favreau's live-action cartoon. It's abjectly corny, and only occasionally fun, but there is at the very least sincerity. In a different film Olivia Wilde's climactic entreaty would be a winking aside to the audience, but here it's simply friendly advice: "You have to stop thinking."