Galloping across the desert, his inscrutable baby blues fixed on the horizon, Daniel Craig makes for a surprisingly convincing cowboy. Some actors, including a few in his new movie, Cowboys & Aliens, look too modern for old-timey roles. There isn?t enough grit, suffering and poor nutrition in their faces, and their gestures and gaits are timed to the impatient rhythms of the information age. But Mr. Craig, with his brutally handsome face and coiled physicality, looks like a rawhide whip that?s just itching to get cracking.
He does, eventually, though it takes the director, Jon Favreau, a long time to wake up his movie, giving it a good kick about a half-hour in. Maybe it?s all the western clich?s he had to line up, including the dusty town, the gun-toting preacher, the mild-mannered doctor, the trigger-happy scion of a powerful cattleman adored by the American Indian orphan who would make him a better son. Don?t forget the surrogate for this PG-13 picture?s presumptive audience, a wide-eyed boy whom you half expect to cry out for Shane. And then there?s the faithful pooch that in one scene yelps when (finally!) he encounters a genre-hopping extraterrestrial with razored lobster claws that looks like a cousin of the monsters from the Alien films.
That these new beasties even evoke the nightmarish creatures originally created by the artist H. R. Giger is a testament to his genius and to this movie?s lack of imagination. It?s too bad. Mr. Favreau, who directed the Iron Man films, isn?t an innovator, but he can have a nice, light touch, and his actors always seem as if they were happy to be there, which is true here too. Here, though, he wavers uncertainly between goofy pastiche and seriousness in a movie that wastes its title and misses the opportunity to play with, you know, ideas about the western and science-fiction horror. (The title may mean little to young viewers, who, like the niece and nephew of a friend, don?t watch westerns and were puzzled about why this isn?t called Cowboys vs. Aliens.)
The movie is distilled from a comic-book world cooked up by Scott Mitchell Rosenberg that was transformed into a platitude-heavy script by Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman, Damon Lindelof, Mark Fergus and Hawk Ostby from a screen story by ? let me catch my breath ? Mr. Ostby, Mr. Fergus and Steve Oedekerk. That?s a lot of writers (some with very fine credits) for a movie in which a woman lovingly reassures her bullied man that he has nothing to prove (meaning that he sure does, as the finale reveals), and in which Mr. Craig?s character says ? drinking at a saloon bar with his back to the sheriff ? that he doesn?t want any trouble. He doesn?t, kind of. But, gee, I bet he would have liked a better line.
As Jake, Mr. Craig happily doesn?t need to say much at first, entering in near-Daniel-Day-Lewis mysterioso silence, popping into the frame as if waking from a nightmare. He?s bloodied and dazed, but his bearings return as soon as he?s set upon by bandits whom he quickly disarms, unpants and deboots. He makes his way to a town where he finds a preacher, Meacham (Clancy Brown), who sews up a weird wound for him, and takes on a drunk, Percy (Paul Dano), who makes the saloonkeeper-sawbones, Doc (Sam Rockwell), dance by gunfire. And, in the role of Miss Kitty or, actually, Ella: Olivia Wilde, whose bleachy-white teeth and manicured brows are strictly Beverly Hills 90210 rather than New Mexico Territory 1875.
Just around the time that the sleepy town threatens to become sleepier, a cluster of small spaceships zips out of the nighttime sky, simultaneously laying waste to the area and stirring your interest. (An earlier, visually obscured attack turns some cattle and their keepers into barbecue.) It?s an effectively staged, attention-grabbing scene, with the ships darting in and out of the darkness, smoke and fireball bursts, as the panicked, shrieking citizenry zigzags below. Amid the clamor there?s a nice pocket of relative quiet when Jake, who?s been detained, suddenly realizes that the strange, metallic bracelet locked on his left wrist has a purpose, an epiphany that turns him into a cowboy with a zap gun.
Soon after Jake figures it out, though, townsfolk have been snatched by the aliens, yanked up by long, tentaclelike appendages that flick out of the spaceships and seize prey as easily as frogs gobble flies. If you?ve seen a few cinematic oaters or just about any them-vs.-us movie, you know what happens next: Strangers join forces as they take off after the villains, who just happen to be extraterrestrials, but might as well be Russians or Nazis, given their bland back story. There is one surprise that nearly saves a laughable character and some wishful thinking with some super-accommodating Apaches that, even in the service of a cinematic fantasy, rankles. As the cattleman, Harrison Ford looks totally cranky but is also pretty swell.
Mr. Ford?s presence, along with that of Steven Spielberg (he?s an executive producer) makes you wonder what Mr. Spielberg would have done with this material, though maybe the better question is what Mr. Favreau would have done differently without him. Cowboys & Aliens is, with Super 8, yet another summer release Mr. Spielberg has blessed with his imprimatur, perhaps not to the advantage of either. (His name is also on the latest Transformers, but let us not speak of that.) It isn?t just that he is a veritable genre and brings a legacy and specific filmmaking ideas with him; it?s also that J. J. Abrams, who directed Super 8, and Mr. Favreau, each a pop adept, have skewed heavier and less loose with the Great Man on board, as if awed by his genius instead of his early gift for fun.
Cowboys & Aliens is rated PG-13 (Parents strongly cautioned). Generally bloodless violence and some mild cussing.