You can be 100 percent sure that “Cowboys & Aliens” was a title long before it ever became a story; this is one of those high-concept ideas that practically writes itself. No doubt someone felt very clever at figuring out how to solve the now politically incorrect “cowboys and Indians” match-up with the stroke of a pen.
Director Jon Favreau, who once upon a time penned the very amusing script for “Swingers,” gives you almost exactly what you’d expect from the title; nothing more, nothing less. Rather stupefying is the fact that despite being based on a 100-page comic book (that wasn’t exactly James Joyce or anything), it took eight writers to achieve a script that feels like it was created by an algorithm.
Set in the Wild West of 1873, “Cowboys & Aliens” features your usual bunch of cowboys from pretty much any horse opera from the past 80 years. You can name them in your sleep: the tough and taciturn stranger, the wild young gun, “Doc,” the sheriff, the preacher, the hooker with a heart of gold, the evil old rancher, the stoic Indian scout. Indeed, many of the actors in these roles — Adam Beach, Buck Taylor, Keith Carradine — are familiar from plenty of other scenes set in saloons and corrals, while Daniel Craig seems to have been cast for his resemblance to blue-eyed Steve McQueen, star of “The Magnificent Seven.”
Favreau stirs up the mix with an Industrial Light & Magic spacecraft full of post-”Alien” insectoid/reptile extraterrestrials who go around abducting humans for medical experiments (no mention of the ubiquitous anal probe). The townsfolk put aside their desire to shoot each other long enough to form a posse to go after their missing loved ones; think “Fire in the Sky” meets “The Searchers.” Father-son issues are resolved (as one would expect from a Steven Spielberg-produced film), bonds are formed, and lots of alien butt gets toasted.
While there are no real surprises, Craig always makes for a good hard-man and Harrison Ford has never been this cantankerous and nasty, whereas Olivia Wilde makes strong men tremble with a mere flick of her hair. The film mostly exists as a tactical puzzle: How exactly are the cowboys (and Indians), with their low-tech six-guns, bows and arrows and horses, supposed to stop the ogre-like aliens and their talons, ray-gun blasters and flying fighter craft? While remaining vague to avoid spoilers, I will note that this may be the first American film to offer a heroic take on suicide bombing.
Perhaps the funniest moment in the film comes during the closing credits, where — after probably a solid 60 minutes’ worth of people blasting other people and aliens with handguns — the film finds it necessary to apologize for its single depiction of tobacco products, and to warn people of the dangers of smoking.
I don’t mean to pick on “Cowboys & Aliens” — it’s no more violent than most any other Hollywood film — but what’s interesting here is how the industry is simultaneously embracing two opposing arguments. When it comes to tobacco, the movie industry agrees that what’s on the screen can indeed influence behavior — especially in youths — and it has largely purged itself of scenes with people smoking.
Yet when it comes to gun violence, the industry insists there is no connection whatsoever between image consumption and behavior, that the audience is not influenced in any way. Did I mention that for Americans between the ages of 15 and 24 — presumably this or any popcorn film’s main demographic — guns are the second leading cause of death overall? The bigger question is, of course, if viewing images doesn’t influence behavior, then what is advertising all about? Isn’t that why brands want their products placed in films? Perhaps the aliens can tell us.