In Hollywood, pitches are used by producers to get projects greenlighted by studio executives. The pitch is usually short, and often plays off of a previously successful film. Die Hard is a particular pitch favorite; Speed was pitched as Die Hard on a bus. With Cowboys and Aliens, the title was the pitch. You can imagine the meeting. Producer: “It has cowboys…and it has aliens.” Studio Executives: “Ooh, ahh.” Granted, this movie does have three high-powered names attached to it: Glazer, Howard, and Spielberg. That would also have studio executives going ooh ahh.
Unfortunately the plot is an amalgam of clichés from both the Western and Sci-fi genres. There’s the loner with no name (literally, since he’s suffering from amnesia), a cattle baron who’s a law unto himself, the cattle baron’s spoiled brat of a son, a preacher who knows guns as well as the Bible, the young boy who must grow up fast, and so on. On the Sci-fi side you have elements lifted from Independence Day, Spielberg’s War of the Worlds, and The Matrix, though all on a much small scale than those pictures.
A man (Daniel Craig) wakes in the 1875 New Mexico brush wearing only his long johns and trousers. He’s been wounded in his side and his left wrist is encircled by a metal cuff. While he’s trying to remove the cuff, three bounty hunters ride up. When they turn belligerent, the man puts all three down in the best Sergio Leone tradition. That solves the man’s attire, footwear, and transportation problems. He rides to the nearest town, where a preacher named Meacham (Clancy Brown) attends to his wounds. They’re interrupted when Percy Dolarhyde (Paul Dano), the cattle baron’s son, starts shooting up the town. Craig stops him, but as he walks away Percy draws his gun and fires – and hits a town deputy standing across the street. (It wasn’t so much bad aim as bad scriptwriting. More on that later.)
Sheriff John Taggart (Keith Carradine) locks up Percy. At the jail, Taggart “just happens” to see a wanted poster for a Jake Lonergan that matches Daniel Craig. Since it was the top poster that the sheriff would have been staring at for weeks, and featured a picture with digital clarity, you wonder why he didn’t recognize Lonergan earlier. Lonergan is wanted for stealing a payroll shipment of gold – money that “just happens” to belong to Colonel Woodrow Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford), the cattle baron. Lonergan is in the town’s bar, where he’s approached by Ella Swenson (Olivia Wilde). She claims he can help her because what happened to him happened to her people. The sheriff arrives with four deputies to arrest Lonergan. Cue Sergio Leone again – he takes out the deputies and gets the drop on Taggart, but Ella pistol whips Lonergan to keep him from getting away.
That night, Lonergan and Percy are being loaded into a jail wagon when Dolarhyde rides into down with his men. He’s in a brutal mood since earlier that day a portion of his herd and two of his men were blown to smithereens by some unknown power. Dolarhyde demands that both men be turned over to him – Percy for protection and Lonergan so he can get his gold back. But the confrontation with the sheriff is interrupted by approaching lights in the sky. At first the townspeople stare in wonder, until the explosions start. Several people are grabbed by whip-like tentacles and dragged into the sky. Guns are ineffective, but Lonergan’s cuff reveals it’s a weapon.
The sheriff, Percy, and the bartender’s wife are among those abducted. In the morning a posse led by Dolarhyde and assisted by Lonergan and Ella sets out to get them back.
Jon Favreau, who began with independent movies and comedies, showed with the two Iron Man pictures he can do action well. Cowboys and Aliens is no exception; the action is thrilling, and the whole picture is beautifully shot. The problems with the picture can be dumped into the collective lap of the writers. Sincere there are eight people credited between the story and screenplay, it’s a large lap. A rule of thumb – if there are more than two screenwriters (or three if two of them are a writing team), the story suffers. By eight, the script’s begging for mercy.
The cast goes a long way to glossing over the script’s holes. Craig seems to be channeling Clint Eastwood at times, but his presence captures your attention. Ford projects nuance within an underwritten role, though the screenwriters laden him with a scene near the end that makes no sense, unless somehow alien abduction is a character-building exercise. Several smaller roles shine, including Clancy Brown’s Preacher Meacham, Adam Beach as the Colonel’s adopted Native American son, and Noah Ringer as Emmett Taggart, the Sheriff’s grandson. Overall, the people who come out looking the best are the band of Comanche who join the townsfolk and Lonergan’s old outlaw gang to fight the aliens.
If you’re a diehard (there it is again) Sci-fi fan – the kind who would actually watch a movie on the Syfy channel – you’ll enjoy this film. If you’re looking for an inventive, exciting sci-fi story featuring aliens, find a theater that’s still showing Super 8.