A man with no name and no memory wakes up in the middle of the desert. He has no idea how he got there but it appears he has been in some sort of violent situation and there is a metal bracelet attached to his wrist. The stranger (Daniel Craig) unluckily attracts frequent attacks including bounty hunters, local thugs, and then aliens. He may not remember his past, but he certainly remembers how to fight and shoot. This comes in handy since the film’s title is Cowboys & Aliens.
Craig moseys into town trying to find answers but all he finds are the sheriff (Keith Carradine) who has a warrant out for him, the town strongman, Woodrow Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford), Dolarhyde’s pathetic son (Paul Dano), a mysterious woman (Olivia Wilde), and a nest of marauding aliens who attack from shoddy, metal flying contraptions.
The aliens show no motive for their chaotic attacks on the town but they do kidnap some of the town folk with metal lassos. The survivors put together an ad hoc posse to go and rescue them lumping together most of the named actors who are now on the same side even though they were enemies just before the attack.
The veteran actors take the material seriously and provide their respective enjoyable performances. Both Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford play grizzled and world weary men who do not seem all that shocked by aliens. They might as well be Indians or the other side in the Civil War. The supporting cast is less convincing and looks like they are just giddy to be in a film with Harrison Ford and Executive Producer Steven Spielberg.
Paul Dano engages in a bit of farcical slapstick acting during his few scenes and his protector and team tracker (Adam Beach) is downright atrocious. He was quite good in Clint Eastwood’s 2006 Flags of Our Fathers but seems to have lost his way here. Olivia Wilde joins the crew as an attractive woman who just happens to be in town and may not be all that she appears to be. Sam Rockwell doubles as the town doctor and bartender but is underserved with his small role and Keith Carradine who is always a pleasure to watch has barely any role at all. I have a feeling much of this cast signed on to be able to share credits with Spielberg and Ford.
There are nine credited writers on this film which may be a clue as to why the script is not very good (too many cooks in the kitchen). The lead two screenwriters are Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman who appear to have worked together on all of their projects. They have produced winners with the Star Trek remake, Mission: Impossible III, and work on the Alias series but have also disappointed with the first two entries in Michael Bay’s Transformers trilogy.
The weight of the film feels light. There is no overriding mystery or any particular southwestern atmosphere. An Indiana Jones type mystique is absent. The script has the characters just bounce around between action sequences and lacks a positive narrative flow. Some members die, some members join, and then another battle scene will start. If there is only one alien film you get to see this year, make it Super 8 and not Cowboys & Aliens.