As humorous as it may have sounded to some, few if any other ideas held as much promise in conception as Cowboys & Aliens did. Albeit a remake it seemed like a no-brainer combination of genres that couldn’t miss and then it did; badly. Whereas many expected the best that each genre has to offer combined in a delicious cinematic stew instead you get the worst.
The first thing that’s off is the pace of the film, which is first dragged down by the fact that we have a protagonist who is suffering from extra-terrestrial induced amnesia and trying to put the pieces of his life back together and thus the story, while it’s true that Jake (Daniel Craig) does beat a few guys up in the first few minutes it’s of virtually no consequence save to introduce some characters and there’s a long lull thereafter.
While there is no inter-species standoffs but rather carpet-bomb attacks and a raid where the core of the alien ship needs to be reached and exploded in a rather Death Star-like manner, these are the least of the problems the aliens pose to this film. Firstly, they are absent from the film for far too long and far too often. When they are away there is no real sense of foreboding or imminent attack. This makes their initial attack rather a jolt but underwhelms the remainder of the film.
I realize there is a desire to create a completely new alien species in every film to stand out but the construction of these creatures is a bit weak and convenient and make for the humans targets that are surprisingly too easy. All the people of the town have to do was get adequate numbers and how to fight them, the aliens themselves did little.
Another issue this film has is that it tries to have two protagonists to an extent by having both Jake (Craig) and Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford) feature so prominently. This is a difficult task, however, it’s made more difficult when you have one who can’t remember who he is and where he came from and another who is a gruff, curmudgeonly, SOB who raised a spoiled brat and has no one to blame but himself and only shows any humanity to his “adopted” son, Nat (Adam Beach). Who is easy to identify with here? Dolarhyde’s softer side is refreshing and gives Ford his first and far-too-late chance to play something other than the same character he’s been playing for the last 30 years but it’s too little too late. So with two dominant figures of the script hard to relate to its easy to see how one can disengage from this story but wait there’s more.
There’s also a very silly twist which is only made somewhat better by the fact that it’s not thrown in at the end of the film. It also helps to explain the vacuousness of a particular performance but sadly said performance doesn’t improve much after the reveal.
So to tally it up you have a lack of information followed by a lot of exposition, a small handful of really good performances (Craig, Rockwell, Dano and Ringer) many of which are hampered by being really small parts, an enemy that isn’t as imposing as it should be and a climactic battle that isn’t. There are unfortunately so many wrong turns that this film can’t be saved.