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

Cowboys & Aliens may not win any Oscars, but it should win a Truth in Advertising award. Picture the cast of Unforgiven suddenly discovering they’re in Independence Day and you’ll get the picture.

This movie, directed by Iron Man helmer Jon Favreau, seems to have been designed to while away a couple of hours for airplane viewers. It meets generally agreed-upon blockbuster standards without messing with ideas (as Iron Man did) or providing a comment on reality (ditto) but also without going as bonkers as, say, Green Lantern.

A flinty and ruthless Daniel Craig plays a loner who, as the camera lovingly sweeps over the sandy scrub of the Southwest, wakes up from an unspecified ordeal silently wondering why he has a mysterious slash in his midsection and a high-tech-looking gizmo on his wrist. After he fails to dislodge the latter with a rock he is forced to dispatch a sinister, roaming group of cutthroats that threatens to haul him in for a bounty.

The loner doesn’t remember who he is (or even whether he’s a good guy or a villain — a nice touch). As he recovers from his wounds in a nearby town where locals include an affable saloon-keeper (Sam Rockwell) and a no-nonsense sheriff (Keith Carradine), he runs afoul of the local punk (Paul Dano), whose habit is to randomly fire his pistol in all directions in the middle of town. The loner doesn’t like this but nobody messes with the kid whose father is the feared cattle baron and controls everything in these parts.

The setup is perfectly enjoyable, exactly the kind of thing Clint Eastwood did so effortlessly in his 70s Westerns, but the hint that things are slightly askew makes you expect a boldly imagined second act. One of many early signs that we might be in for a terrifically suspenseful popcorn picture is the first appearance of the cattle baron, Dolarhyde: He’s Harrison Ford. Even better, he’s the surliest cuss west of the Mississippi. And like so many Eastwood figures, he’s got a Civil War background that has scarred him forever. Best of all: He’s the villain, a leathery hombre as cruel as cactus.

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.)