I was strangely curious about 'Cowboys & Aliens' when I saw it advertised a few months back. Silly title notwithstanding, I did find it interesting that the filmmakers were able to lure both Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford into the fray as the two main leads. Couple this with Jon Favreau in the director's chair, and I smelled gold, but what I got was pyrite. It's certainly a fun film to watch, but not without a dark side. Daniel Craig stars as Jake Lonergan, a wanted fugitive who awakens in the middle of the Arizona desert with no memory of who he is, where he came from, or what that strange device is around his wrist. Making his way back into town, he soon crosses paths with the son of Colonel Woodrow Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford), a wealthy businessman who has injected commerce into the town of Absolution and gained a powerful influence because of it. Both Dolarhyde's son and Lonergan are taken into custody and prepped for transportation to a federal marshal for incarceration. Dolarhyde returns to Absolution to confront Sheriff Taggart (Keith Carradine) for the release of his son, but before things can escalate further, a strange trio of UFOs attack the town and begin abducting its people. Lonergan manages to escape and notices that the device attached to his wrist has become active. He takes aim at one of the ships and fires a powerful energy bolt that brings down the UFO. Realizing that the device shares the same architecture as the downed UFO, Lonergan begins to slowly flash back and remember the truth: he was abducted by aliens for experimentation.
Dolarhyde and several of the townsfolk form a posse to track down the alien pilot who escaped the downed UFO wreckage. Lonergan also finds himself allied with the posse, and they soon find out that an alien recon team has landed on Earth for the purpose of gathering intel to strip-mine the planet for resources. Armed only with sticks, knives and 19th century firearms, the cowboys must devise a plan to bring the fight to the aliens before it's too late.
At its core, 'Cowboys & Aliens' feels a lot like Independence Day in the old west, but without the hokey cheese and bad dialogue. Indeed, the film is a well thought out story that takes its subject matter seriously. A little TOO seriously, perhaps. It may have been designed as an exciting summer blockbuster epic, but the film feels dark....almost sinister and wicked in its portrayal of violence and destruction. I was quite surprised to feel uncomfortable during several of the scenes which show a lot of folks dying some slow and unpleasant deaths. For all its high tech special effects and attempt at adventurism, the movie carries a deep sense of mean-spiritedness that permeates the viewing experience and makes it a bit too harsh, especially for younger viewers. I liked the progression of storyline, however. It's an old-style western with some grit and very little polish. Harrison Ford once again steals the show as the fascinating Dolarhyde, a villain who slowly metamorphs from anti-hero to full hero by the time the clock is done ticking. Olivia Wilde brings her bright-eyed charm and beauty into the role of Ella, a character with more than her fair share of surprises. There are other great performances by veterans such as Clancy Brown and Sam Rockwell. This movie was staffed with some excellent actors. It's a shame that they're all buried under the weight of such a joyless pitch. Special effects seem to keep getting better and better. The final scene of the film is pretty impressive, and seamless. It shows how far we've come from the pseudo-3D disaster that was 'Air Force One,' another Ford film.
If you can take a heavy shot of nihilism with your summer blockbusters, then 'Cowboys & Aliens' is a decent, fun ride. It's not perfect, and it's not going to trumpet any particular victory, but it's an excuse to see Craig and Ford share the screen together, and they work well as compatriots. A definite rental, however.