I knew, going in, that Cowboys and Aliens was not going to be good, because I am depressingly aware of how easy it for a movie to go wrong and I have long ago realised that the more of the movie they show you in TV ads, the less likely it is to be a masterpiece, or even competent. But I try not to let things like mere incompetence ruin my day at work, and apply the same standards to play as well. So me and two old age pensioners braved the show at the local fleapit - my suspicion is that I'd have been entirely alone had it not been for the fact that the local newspaper was giving out vouchers good for a free ticket on Monday nights.
Let me lead off with the bad news, and we can ramp it up from there. At no point does Daniel Craig emerge from the water like some gleaming river god in spandex trunks and flaunt his six pack. Neither does Olivia Wilde, which is only the beginning of the disappointments she brings to the part of "Hey, what do you mean Summer Glau turned down a kooky SF role? Who looks a bit like her?". Harrison Ford sets out to play a villain, but either his agent choked or the scriptwriter wimped out without being asked; whatever, he has a redemptive arc not unlike his earliest famous role, except if Han Solo began as a worthless sadist and somehow magically became Han Solo.
Main performances duly dismissed, we note in passing that a breathtaking array of talented people get tossed aside in the course of the whole thing, including Clancy Brown and Walton Goggins (there is something seriously wrong with ANY movie which can put Walton Goggins in a role and leave you at the end vaguely wondering if he made it or not). Then we stride bravely into what I'm going to have to call the plot.
Aliens are, I have to concede, dicks. With the one exception of ET, who I've always thought was merely a clever piece of propaganda by the alien-overlord-lovers' front, aliens only ever seem to have one thing on their minds. And what tiny, limited, poorly prepared minds they have. The aliens in Cowboys and Aliens fit well into the main sequence of such lunks, slotting in nicely among the aliens of HG Wells (vast intellects too stupid to take their shots), Independence Day (vast intellects too stupid to keep their anti-virus up to date), Signs (vast water-soluble intellects too stupid to bring rain coats to a planet covered in water) and Battle LA (vast intellects prepared to come humungous distances and burn stupid amounts of energy to steal something they could have cobbled up anywhere given the technology they demonstrably have). Cowboys Aliens fall nicely in the middle, having come to earth to steal our gold. Which, Olivia Wilde helpfully points out, is just as rare in their world as it is in ours. This is not news to anyone who knows even a little bit about how elements are formed, but just because something is rare doesn't really explain why it's in demand. For example, common sense is vanishingly rare despite its name, and yet, the demand for it is disappointingly small. Aliens do be wanting their gold. We don't be knowing why. We CAN eliminate the idea that they're collecting as bling, because like every other scary alien in Hollywood history, Cowboy Aliens are strangers to common decency and lope around without clothes, jewellery or even utility belts. Possibly this is why we haven't conquered the universe; our stupid preoccupation with dressing up to go out is getting in the way of our destiny.
Creating a believable space alien is a very difficult thing to do, and I have to applaud the makers of Cowboys and Aliens for realising this and just throwing their hats at it. The aliens look as though every other alien you've ever seen had some kind of a rainbow party and then agreed to abandon the spawn which resulted. There's bits of the DNA of Cloverfield, the actual Alien, Predators, the completely crap humAlien in the second of the two Alien movies which we're all agreed never really happened and probably a bunch of other stuff from movies I've been lucky enough never to have seen. And there are just boatloads of them, leading to my usual preoccupation with the logistics of it all; what do they all eat? They're huge, they'd have to eat all the time... and so on.
I was originally going to rant on and on about how implausible it was that you'd have aliens which had the technology somehow to suck gold straight out of the ground and refine it with pure magnetism or something, and were too stupid to have invented clothes or have any better plan for dealing with pesky humans than just running out and trying to beat them up. Then, as I was in the state of zen which ironing can bring to the truly enlightened, it struck me that I was looking at this wrong. All we were being shown was the goldminers. And even on earth, no matter how much we value gold, we've never put much value on goldminers. Suddenly the aliens made sense to me. Of course they were ignorant assclowns who didn't have clothes or clues or clever ways to use their genius technology. They were goldminers. Their society's expendable sod busters. Ta-da. That problem was solved.
Of course, it still left all the other stuff in the movie which doesn't make any sense, or feels like it was old long before this movie. Daniel Craig spends the whole movie in an amnesiac trance, until we discover - through native american rituals - the real story behind how he wound up amnesiac with a big alien killing bracelet on one wrist. I'm just not going to tell you that; not because I don't want to spoil the surprise, but because I'm afraid that if I recount it, the stupid will rub off. At no point does the bracelet ever really make sense; at first it seems to switch itself on only when aliens are around, but later it seems to be all about whether Daniel's in the mood for destruction. Which is slightly less stupid, because why would aliens make weapons which detected themselves? Mind you, why would alien weapons be powered by human thought waves? At no point does the alien game plan make sense, even if they ARE just dumb goldminers. They're kidnapping the local population to figure out their weaknesses? How much more do they need than "they're half our size and have no energy weapons"?, though I suppose I shouldn't rule out the possibility that they're just bored sadists passing the time as they dig for gold. Aliens are dicks, after all.
Anyhow, after many distractions, a satisfying coalition of cowboys, bandits and actual Indians fights off the wicked goldminers, and kills them to the last man so as to save the prisoners. I'm not actually sure about the math, because it looks to me like they might have lost more of the assault party than they got back, but then no-one ever does that math in real life OR the movies. Olivia Wilde gets killed at least twice, with no really noticeable effect on her performance either time. Harrison Ford learns to love the son he never had as well the dipstick he actually managed to bring up. Sadly, the wrong son gets wasted, but them's the breaks in Hollywood, and Paul Dano must have had a better agent. Or an Oscar nomination. Something, anyhow. Keith Carradine bucks the trend in the movie and actually gets out of it alive, but like everyone else involved probably now wants to, spends the ending trying to convince us he can't remember how he got into it or what might have happened. Daniel Craig's character grows and develops nearly as much as the scenery, but to less persuasive effect; rarely has a genuinely good actor been given so little to do with his talent. (Craig may well have less dialogue than any other speaking part, and there's only so much you can do with grimaces).
Still, it's taught me a valuable lesson; not only are aliens dicks, but the ones we meet in the movies are usually the alien lumpenproletariat. Which is good news for plucky humanity, until some bunch of aliens gets wise and sends lawyers.