I can imagine the first marketing meeting: The film's called Cowboys AND Aliens (two genres in one), it stars James Bond AND Han Solo/Indiana Jones (delete as applicable) and it's directed by the guy who made Iron Man. What's not to love? Unfortunately, quite a lot.
Based on a graphic novel of the same name, the story follows Jake Lonergan (Craig) who finds himself in the tiny Arizona town of Absolution not knowing who he is or how he got there and with a strange bracelet contraption on his wrist. Almost immediately he has a run-in with the son of town boss Woodrow Dolarhyde (Ford) and both find themselves under arrest. As they're about to be sent off to court, the town comes under attack from some strange flying objects which abduct many of the town's residents, including Dolarhyde's obnoxious son played by the woefully underused Dano. And so some of the town's braver residents decide to set off to fiund their missing loved ones and also discover what these strange creatures are. Along the way, Jake begins to remember he knows quite a bit about these other beings.
It's a pretty straight-forward story told in a linear way but with the odd flashback helping the audience understand who Jake is and why he's here. But there are some HUGE plot holes – for one, how did everyone in 1873 just accept these things could fly? But i digress. The film is shot like a Western, it's murky and gritty. Craig does his best "Man With No Name" but at times feels so one dimensional it's hard to really care what happens to him. Ford, as always, is the one you're rooting for, even if his character does have a complete personality shift during the film.
One of the big problems is that Craig and Ford spend too much of the film apart, it's when they're acting together that both really shine. In terms of support, again it's woefully underused. Rockwell plays the local barkeep, strangely named 'Doc' and gets to provide a little light relief. Wilde has little to do as Ella until the final act apart from explaning to the locals (and us) what's really going on. She's an almost-love interest for Craig, but there's little chemistry there.
What did surprise me about the film is just how horrific it is in places. Characters are dissected by the aliens or just blasted away while the aliens themselves are pretty nasty to look at and are able to peel themselves away to reveal even more horrors. This is definitely not a film for the very young. It's rather a dark film for a summer bockbuster, dealing with themes of loss and death and it's not afraid to spill some blood. But of all the genres to mash together together to make a movie, I'm not sure Cowboys & Aliens really works. What I find strange is that the film had five screenwriters! It seems they were so busy coming up with a "concept" somehow they forgot about an interesting and absorbing story.