Cowboys & Aliens

There's one mad, wicked scene in this seriously underspiced Old West barbecue when UFOs swoop out of the sky using wires to lasso cowboys off their horses and suck them into their vessels for God knows what. That we never see the guts of the what is part of the frustration that nags at the wussified PG-13 Cowboys & Aliens. It looks slick, pricey and starry – Indiana Jones teams up with James Bond for a gunfight with space demons. But even Harrison Ford and Daniel Craig can't save a movie that's all concept, no content.

Director Jon Favreau, tasked with corralling dozens of producers and screenwriters, takes the no-risk tack of skimming the surface. My appetite was whetted when gunslinger Jake Lonergan (Craig) wakes up in the desert beaten bloody with no memory of who he is. On his wrist is a newfangled bracelet that Q might have cooked up for 007. It's an alien-zapper, which Jake will figure out later. First, he needs to kill a few varmints, hit the town of Absolution and tangle with Woodrow Dolarhyde (Ford), a cattle baron with an unhinged son (Paul Dano). Ford looks fired up for villainy. Craig is ready to take him on. And Olivia Wilde gives an air of mystery to a woman who is more than the whore she's taken for.

And then what? The aliens come, kidnapping much of the colorful supporting cast, including Keith Carradine as the sheriff. I especially missed Dano, who shows a mesmerizing mean streak. As for the monsters, except for the creepy deformed little hands that emerge from their chests, they're not really scary.

Worse, the character buildup in the early scenes goes for nothing. Craig moons over his dead wife. Ford turns mushy, delivering lessons on manhood to the sheriff's cute grandson (Noah Ringer). Ah, jeez.

The gifted cinematographer Matthew Libatique (Black Swan) lights Ford and Craig like Western giants against the rugged landscape. It's a setup for an epic showdown. What we get instead is drained of daring, much the way Favreau reduced Iron Man to formula in the sappy sequel. The mash-up of cowboys and aliens doesn't do either camp any favors. How are we supposed to work up a rooting interest when both sides are shooting blanks?

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From The Archives Issue 1137: August 18, 2011
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