Cowboys and Aliens is a film so high-concept that the title could've come verbatim from the initial pitch. It's that most rare of stories, an alien invasion plot that doesn't take place in the year that the film came out, or far in the future. Some might say that this is because we'd all have heard of an alien invasion that had taken place in the past, to which I'd rebut that this is avowedly a piece of fiction, and not a documentary, and furthermore that the year 2019 isn't going to be anything like the world depicted in Blade Runner, either, and they can just get over it.
A man (Daniel Craig) awakens in the desert with a metal manacle on his wrist and no memory of how he ended up in such a spot. It quickly becomes apparent that there are others who do know who he is, and still others who want to know. A mystery woman named Elle (Olivia Wilde) seems to think he knows something of value. Local law enforcement believe him to be a wanted outlaw. A local cattle baron named Dolerhyde (Harrison Ford) believes the stranger has stolen from him personally, as if it wasn't enough that he humiliated Dolarhyde's prat of a son in front of the whole town. It's an archetypical western setup of conflicts, which becomes more complex when something unexpected occurs. Anyone who's read the title can probably hazard a decent guess as to what it is.
How well all of this works depends upon which part of the film you're watching. The first half functions quite successfully. The parts meant to feel like a traditional western do so. The parts where the aliens appear are handled with appropriate care towards how people of the time would deal with such events: they don't compare the spacecraft to planes because there weren't any yet, they don't compare them to ships because the metaphor wouldn't be obvious. They don't, in fact, ever use the term "aliens" at all. They simply buck up and deal with the situation as best they can as they attempt to find and rescue their kidnapped friends and relatives. It's the second half, and the last reel in particular, that feels strained. The more the aliens move to the forefront of the story, the more like science fiction we perceive it to be. Sadly, it doesn't morph into especially clever science fiction. SF movies haven't done anything interesting with aliens in a good while. This year's Super 8, one of my favorite films of the summer, also featured an alien encounter, which was the least compelling part of the story. Here, the bug-eyed critters fill the role most often chosen for them, which is to provide the excuse for a noisy shoot-em-up in which the beasties are too hard to kill despite wearing no clothes. The final act desperately cries out for an intelligent sci-fi idea to shake things up. Instead, it's mostly a loud flurry of combat, tragic deaths and lessons learned via the standard grand gestures.
Right after the film was over, I tried imagining it without the amnesia aspect, instead substituting a simple lack of disclosure from the protagonist in place of every sincere "I don't know." I'm not sure that it would've made the story that different. A protagonist with no memory is a pretty standard trope in sci-fi, not so much so in westerns. It would've been nice, then, if they'd employed it to more significant effect. A man in search of himself should discover something of plot-centric import. The most it's used for here is help with audience sympathy. Craig's character learns he was once something of a jerk. Because he doesn't remember it, we can like him, since he's forgotten to go around acting like the same jerk. Ford's character also manages to gain sympathy, though it might've been cooler to have the actor play a straight-up villain for a change; his more antagonistic scenes are quite good.
That, then, is the real problem with the film: it lures us in with more promises than it can really make good on. I also have a minor bone to pick with either the filmmakers or the promoters. Most of the trailers featured strategically-framed shots of Olivia Wilde walking around naked in the firelight, as an obvious incentive to get male audiences into the theater, despite the fact that the actual movie showed nothing more risqué than the previews. This, frankly, is dirty pool; there are times when I really do miss the 1980s. It's also another example of the lamentable "don't pretend to kill a character before her most memorable scene from the trailer has yet appeared" syndrome. Really, honestly, we here in movie-watching land do actually like surprises.
-review by Matt Murray