Truth in Advertising: Cowboys & Aliens Does in Fact Offer Cowboys and Aliens

At least that’s how he first appears. As the movie goes on, though, Dolarhyde progresses from nasty to merely tough to merely a pardner to Craig’s character who turns out to be a wanted desperado named Lonergan. Ford as villain: priceless. Ford as largely irrelevant sidekick: depressing.

It turns out that this part of the West is being besieged by alien gunships, a development no one seems to think is particularly shocking even though airplanes haven’t been invented yet, but then again these guys drink so much straight whisky maybe they’ve seen a lot of strange sights in the sky before. The aliens streak through town mowing down cowpokes with laser rays but capture others with (and here is another witty detail) what amount to lariats.

These victims get whisked off to a place unknown, for no clear purpose, but another mysterious stranger in town (Olivia Wilde) seems to know a little more about them than the rest. It turns out that she is a member of that most uncanny species -- the back-story delivery device. It’s her job (as she has wide experience in these matters) to tell the boys (and us) what the aliens are up to and why. They want gold, it turns out. Because this is a Western. What else would they be after? If it’s microchips, they’re in the wrong century.

At some point Cowboys & Aliens crosses a line and stops aspiring to being the sand-in-your-boots Clint Eastwood movie it started as. In the last half hour or so, it becomes a clash-of-the-galaxies shoot-em-up in the vein of Starship Troopers (though not as campy or as violent). That would be fine if as much care had gone into the sci-fi aspects as the Western ones. Instead, the noisy but only mildly thrilling climax proceeds by the numbers. As in Independence Day the previously invulnerable aliens -- who are bigger, stronger and faster than horses -- suddenly become a little too easy to kill for no reason other than that the screenwriters have decided it’s time for the “tide is turning” phase of the script.

Early on, the spaceships blithely buzz by as the cowboys unload every firearm in sight; later in the film, when cowboys have joined forces with Apaches, bullets knock them down like bowling pins and even firing an arrow at one of these monsters isn’t completely ineffectual. Scary as these creatures are when they first start to pop up, they don’t live up to their hype. But at least the aliens didn’t self-destruct from being splashed with water (as in Signs) or from catching a head cold (as in War of the Worlds.)