Cowboys & Aliens sticks to its guns. Symbolically, that might suggest a certain strength, but in truth it means the filmmakers couldn't have played it any safer. The story is a weak hodgepodge of ideas riding past the point of homage clear into Cliché County. The crisp, colorful visuals likewise present an unmemorable wallpaper of established western and science fiction iconography devoid of individual vision.
It's a clear case of too many cooks. Credited to a screenwriting seven, their conglomerated output is anything but magnificent. With a cast of caricatures that includes an amnesiac outlaw (Daniel Craig), a bumbling medicine man (Sam Rockwell), and a grizzled cattle rancher (Harrison Ford), Director John Favreau's crack team of creatives had their bases covered with western stereotypes. Their failure is in their unwillingness or inability to add anything beyond extraterrestrials to the mix.
Stripped of its sci-fi gimmick, the world collapses. These people aren't compelling in their own right, and their predictable reaction to an otherworldly threat negates the period setting. The titular visitors are off-handedly called demons, but the unique perspective of a society that hasn't yet read H.G. Wells' War of the Worlds is absent. Explaining the invasion using Christian ideology might have helped set Cowboys & Aliens apart, but it subsists instead solely on the novelty of combining its constituent genres while doing neither justice.
Presumably because the audience is expected and even depended on not to think, the screenplay circumvents such ambiguity at every turn. Instead of allowing our turn-of-the-century protagonist to make sense of the ordeal on his own terms, religious or otherwise, the writers employ an expendable, expository character to do it for him. Do we really need to know the back-story and endgame of the antagonists? It used to be enough just to know they're here and they're dangerous.
And then there's the aliens themselves. It seems almost unjust to criticize the creature design given how low Hollywood has set the bar, but Cowboys & Aliens' take is particularly uninspired. Bearing resemblance to the grasshoppers from Pixar's A Bug's Life, these cartoony insectoids feel completely at odds with the gritty western setting. Granted, dichotomy is the name of the game, but when they share screen space with our human heroes, the result is more Who Framed Roger Rabbit? than was likely intended.
But far more important than its intellectual and stylistic shortcomings is the fun factor. Cowboys & Aliens has a handful of decent set pieces, though its climactic battle is too helter-skelter to impress. Aerial assaults in the aliens' mechanized dragonfly drones prove most entertaining, though remain too few and far between. Their unannounced arrival is especially memorable and chaotic, but as the scale escalates, the stakes never ante up.
Cowboys & Aliens is a hopelessly average blockbuster. Big stars, bigger budget, and zero staying power. Much has been made of the "risk" associated with Favreau helming such an unproven franchise. After all, where are the wizards, the superheroes, and the vampires? This is not a brave film, nor the work of a brave filmmaker. Universal Pictures inherits the slim financial risk that this oddball mash up won't recoup its hundred million dollars; Favreau himself takes none.
In other words, he sticks to his guns. He fulfills his contractual obligation to bring the offbeat Cowboys & Aliens comic to the screen, but traverses cautiously over the safest possible path to deliver it. Call that what you will, but cowardice has a nice ring to it.