Generally delivering on its promise of a hybrid science fiction Western, Cowboys & Aliens offers an action packed story. From the first scene with a wordless, shoeless main character played by Daniel Craig (Munich, James Bond movies) to the thrilling conclusion, Universal’s summer crowd-pleaser, directed by Jon Favreau (Elf, Zathura) is almost as simple as it sounds. The first part’s better than the second part, especially with a preacher character (Clancy Brown, getting the best lines and stealing the show), who urges people to defend themselves with weapons and advises that whether you’re going to heaven or hell isn’t God’s plan; it’s your own.
Such wisdom might have been the theme of Cowboys & Aliens, which drives toward and ends on a less secular, more explicitly religious note, and with this many writers and Steven Spielberg involved, it was bound to get crowded with ideas. Still, Craig is solid in the lead as the mysteriously wanted man, particularly in the fight scenes and when he gets to be heroic. Harrison Ford is fine as a wicked old businessman, so is Sam Rockwell as a saloon proprietor named Doc, the most interesting and believable character, and Noah Ringer as the boy is spot on, a real kid not a robotic miniature adult. Olivia Wilde portrays the movie’s most problematic character, an all-knowing woman who ultimately saps the heroism from Cowboys & Aliens. There are consistency issues, too, such as aliens who can’t see well in daylight that manage to do just that, and items such as spyglasses, cigarettes, and an old-fashioned mangy dog that seem to pop up out of nowhere every so often. Don’t take small kids unless you think seeing bodies burning is acceptable for children (I do not) and the blood and violence sometimes feel more like Spielberg’s bloodlusting twins War of the Worlds and Munich than something you’d expect from the man who brought forth Iron Man.
There’s moral ambiguity at play in Cowboys & Aliens, with a Searchers-like subplot about an Indian and a racist, and everyone sets out into the West to search for their captured loved ones, as in that iconic John Wayne Western, though at least the aliens don’t turn out to be the moral equivalent of cowboys (in fact, they turn out to be more like the IRS). With a hero, woman, boy, dog, Doc, preacher, and an excellent score by Harry Gregson-Williams (Taking of Pelham 1 2 3), the plot about aliens attacking the town of Absolution propels toward an exciting climax, with twists you’ll probably see coming and, of course, redemption. For me, Cowboys & Aliens, which, like Captain America, takes the fight deep into the core of the enemy’s turf, is best when focused on Doc and the boy becoming a man than when depicting immolation, sacrifice and anti-capitalism. But as a summer shoot ’em up with good characters, it’ll do.