It’s hard to say what is most depressing about “Cowboys & Aliens” — the film itself, or the fact that this was the best movie a posse of major Hollywood players could come up with.
A leaden mash-up of western and science-fiction elements that ends up noisy, grotesque and unappealing, this Jon Favreau-directed film features five producers (including Brian Grazer and Ron Howard), six executive producers (Steven Spielberg and Ryan Kavanaugh among them) and six credited writers, led by “Star Trek” rebooters Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci and “Lost’s” Damon Lindelof. No wonder the film plays like a business deal more than a motion picture.
Listed as a producer, not a writer, is Scott Mitchell Rosenberg, whose concept for the original graphic novel inspired the film. That’s right, “Cowboys” doesn’t even retell the story the graphic novel does; it sets out on its own. This is not a satisfying journey.
It’s not that there is anything fundamentally flawed about the notion of good guys, bad guys and Native Americans joining forces in the New Mexico territories, circa 1875, to fend off rampaging aliens from God knows where. Casting Daniel Craig as Alien Nemesis No. 1 was a capital idea, as was hiring director of photography Matthew Libatique to give the cinematography a classic western look.
Unfortunately, little else about this film has worked out as planned. Both the cowboy and the alien halves of the venture play like tired retreads of once-vibrant material, and putting them together doesn’t disguise the deficiencies — it doubles down on the losses.
Craig’s character is introduced as a Man With No Name all alone in the middle of the desert with a strange-looking, high-tech bracelet on his left wrist and a mind empty of all knowledge of who he might be or where he might have come from.
Kind of like the redoubtable Jason Bourne, however, No Name has retained some very effective fighting skills, as anyone who tries to get in the way of this James Bond in buckskin soon finds out.
No Name makes his way to the nearest town, where he runs into a gaggle of clichés masquerading as archetypes: the weak-kneed saloon owner (Sam Rockwell), the sniveling son of a feared cattle baron (Paul Dano), the worried sheriff (Keith Carradine) and more.
The town is called Absolution, and that name is as hackneyed as the rest of the film’s western paraphernalia. Unlike last year’s splendid “True Grit” or even Ron Howard’s underappreciated “The Missing,” “Cowboys & Aliens” has a clumsy touch and zero feel for the intangibles of classic movie westerns.
With a script eager to embrace every witless western chestnut — talking is “flapping your gums” to this crowd — and a passion for stock situations, “Cowboys & Aliens” displays one thumping cliché after another as if its bankrupt derivativeness was in some way reinventing the wheel.
Olivia Wilde has the presence to pull off the role of a mysterious woman who seems to know a lot more about No Name than he knows about himself. But Harrison Ford, costarring as cattle king and disaffected Civil War veteran Woodrow “Don’t Call Me Colonel” Dolarhyde, is not so fortunate. Though the permanently apoplectic Dolarhyde is supposed to be a holy terror, the actor unintentionally plays him on the edge of caricature.
Once the aliens of the title show themselves, aping the aliens of “Super 8" by yanking good citizens off the streets of Absolution with the tentacles of their dragonfly-shaped vehicles, the film goes off the rails in a different way.
The problem with these slimy, unpleasant extraterrestrials is that they manage to be both repulsive (probably a good thing for the film’s intended demographic) and pro forma. The final fight to the finish with these entities is repetitive and tiresome, partially because it’s never clear what it takes to eliminate one of them.
The only sure weapon the cowboys have turns out to be No Name’s bracelet, which also came from outer space, though it’s never clear why he seems to have the only one of these all-powerful wrist gizmos. Don’t these aliens know enough not to travel without a spare?
As noted, Craig’s stern presence attempts to keep “Cowboys & Aliens” on track, but it is not enough. When director Favreau enthuses, “I believe that people are thirsting for something like this,” it’s hard to know what universe he’s talking about.