If anyone has ever made a movie that fits squarely, comfortably and excruciatingly into the bracket marked “average”, then Cowboys and Aliens is that movie. It is almost an archetypal case study in Hollywood mediocrity; an exercise in pedestrian film-making so aggressively bland that it’s actually somewhat bizarre that it even exists.
Set in the post-war Old West, the film’s staggeringly so-so plot follows Daniel Craig’s amnesiac ruffian (little more than a 19th century spin on his Bond persona) as he ambles through generic sets with a high-tech bauble clamped onto his arm (the mystery behind this device turns out to be thumpingly unimaginative). Our grizzled hero briefly engages in some passable Eastwood-style shenanigans with the local denizens of the Central Casting Saloon, before the alien conquistadors show up to abduct some people and spur a determined pursuit to track them to their lair.
The film is at its closest to engaging in the early scenes, as it rattles confidently along the well-worn groove of the Western genre; nothing particularly dazzling to see, but there are actors who know what they’re doing here (Harrison Ford, Keith Carradine), so you could be fooled into thinking that some fun is on the horizon. Unfortunately, the moment the boring, faceless, ham-handed colonialist metaphors that are the titular aliens show up, the film is reduced to a joyless slog across the desert in order to rescue people the audience hasn’t known long enough to care about.
This is the point where the average really kicks in. Workmanlike characterisation, workmanlike effects, workmanlike set-pieces, workmanlike twists, workmanlike everything. Oh look, Native Americans. Oh look, banditos. Oh look, Daniel Craig has a mysterious past. Oh look, Olivia Wilde’s enigmatic love interest has secrets of her own. Oh look, Harrison Ford has a soft centre underneath his growly, calloused exterior. There’s little about these elements that are genuinely bad, so to speak. The laboured beats of the script are just so creakily obvious, as if you could actually see the plot mechanics grinding away in the background like some giant fourth-wall-breaking steampunk insanity. The quirky title is wasted on this project; it’s as if the creators thought that just slapping cowboys and aliens together on the same silver screen would instantly strike gold. But the aliens are just there, smacking jarringly into the story like the vampires in From Dusk Till Dawn, but without the subjectively-endearing craziness. There seems to have been little in the way of desire to explore or play with the concept, just po-faced running and riding and expositing and shooting and exploding. In short, nothing that all but the youngest of movie-goers hasn’t already seen a hundred, ever more tedious times before.