It is its provenance as much as the promise of its trailer that make Cowboys and Aliens such a disappointment. Directed by Iron Man's Jon Favreau, its producers include not only Brian Grazer and Ron Howard, but Steven Spielberg. Given that Spielberg was also a producer on Super-8, the summer's other big disappointing blockbuster, perhaps the great man's presence somehow undermines his protégés.
Inspired by a comic-book's cover, Cowboys and Aliens should be, and at times is, great fun. But there have many more interesting attempts to combine science fiction and Western movie tropes as long ago as Westworld and as recently as Firefly. The problem lies less in the director or the performances but in a lousy screenplay. It is a bad sign when a film has a committee's worth of credited writers. Those listed here are all established figures from the world of dreck-TV and by-the-numbers action flicks. Their witless, cliché-ridden dialogue seems all the more tired against the background of superior effects, action sequences and cinematography.
In Arizona territory in 1875, a wounded cowboy (Daniel Craig) wakes up in the desert with a futuristic metal bracelet attached to his left wrist. He suffers from amnesia but, as is quickly clear, has almost superhuman fighting skills. Jake (as his name turns out to be) staggers into a small mining town where he is operated on by the local preacher.
Immediately afterwards, he meets a strange beauty (Olivia Wilde) and gets in a confrontation with the local landowner's bully of a son - a cowboy Uday Hussain. This lands him in the local jail where the sheriff (Keith Carradine) recognises him as wanted by the federal authorities. Jake is due to be taken to Santa Fe for trial when the bully's father Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford) rides into town with his thugs.
Dolarhyde is about to lynch Jake when spaceships appear in the sky and bomb the town. It is only when Jake shoots down a spaceship with his bracelet ray-gun that the attack stops, though the wounded alien pilot gets away.
Dolarhyde, Jake and the townspeople join forces to search for the alien. Eventually, after some violent encounters, they are joined in their quest by Jake's old gang and a band of Apaches, in a sentimental manifestation of human solidarity.
The movie is jammed with self-conscious film-buff references. They are already tiresome by the time, only half way through, an alien shoves its dripping jaws right next to the face of a terrified boy in an exact imitation of the famous scene in Aliens.
Wilde's big-eyed, other-worldly beauty is perfect for her character's role. But there are times when her Beverly Hills grooming is in comically sharp contrast to the other characters' filthy appearance.
Despite her intellectual pedigree (Wilde is the daughter of the writers and fierce anti-zionists Leslie and Andrew Cockburn, and distantly related to Evelyn Waugh), she comes across here as oddly vacant.
If Harrison Ford fails to convince as Dolarhyde it is because the screenplay demands that you change your perception of him from vicious villain to curmudgeonly hero too quickly. Even Gene Hackman, who has played similar roles several times very well in the past, would have a hard time pulling it off.
Daniel Craig, however, could hardly be better cast. There is nothing pretty about his raw, weatherbeaten handsomeness and he fits into a Western environment with the ease of Steve McQueen.
Watching Craig on screen in an action role is always a pleasure. It is unfortunate for him that the film's costume department, which does a fine job of lending period authenticity to the other characters, puts Craig in a tight leather waistcoat and chaps that make him look like he stepped out of a Soho gay bar.