A man (Daniel Craig) awakens in the desert and wonders not only how he got there, but who he is. He is underdressed for wandering the landscape, and notices a strange band around his arm which in spite of his efforts he cannot remove. It is then he hears someone approaching, and is soon circled by a gang of men on horseback who begin to question him and act threateningly - but suddenly, as they muse over whether he'd deliver some lucrative bounty, the man attacks, managing to knock them all off their horses and shooting them with their own guns...
Who could this Wild West superman be? We don't find out for quite a while, and when we do as with much of the rest of the film, what should have been part of a rip-roaring adventure wound up eliciting a shrug, as Cowboys & Aliens was one of the would-be blockbusters of 2011 which "underperformed" at the box office. It wasn't a disaster, but the filmmakers quickly discovered that on trying to please the Western fans and the sci-fi fans simultaneously, there were not as many pleased with the results as they would have liked. Not much of a surprise when there were seven writers involved and they still hadn't worked out the correct appeal.
One of those writers was of course the author of the original comic book this was drawn from, but it didn't quite explain where the production had gone wrong when what looked like had happened was that nobody had any feel for the material as they wanted it to be presented. For the first half hour it's a passable cowboy movie, a little clichéd but with a nice enough atmosphere and sunbaked appearance, but then just as you're forgetting the other half of the title, a barrage of ray gun fire hails down on the characters from the night skies and suddenly you think, oh yeah, these must be the aliens, so what could a cowboy possibly do against that?
Which is an intriguing conundrum, but the solution is rather a letdown when the man with no name notices his wristband is bleeping now and can emit its own blasts of destructive energy, taking down one of the alien craft in the process. A better idea would have been to dispense with these technological marvels falling into the hands of the humans - there are more to come - and see if the writers could concoct a way for nineteenth century know-how to foil the invaders' plans. All right, the odds were stacked against them, but that would have made for heightened tension in the story instead of the people relying on Craig aiming his arm at any extraterrestrial wickedness and letting go with the energy bolts.
Harrison Ford was in this too, though you'd be forgiven for forgetting that as he was underused to a degree, that degree being the producers hoping that his name in a science fiction context would make viewers think of how much they enjoyed the Star Wars series - the ones he was in, at any rate. He played the patriarchal baddie who comes around to Craig's hero's point of view when his weaselly son (Paul Dano) is captured by the aliens along with most of the town for reasons rather fumbled, but the theme here was that humanity should all set aside their differences and team up to repel a different foe, and that included those old enemies cowboys and Indians getting on with each other for a change. With Olivia Wilde as the love interest who has a secret of her own, and seasoned character actors like Sam Rockwell and Clancy Brown doing the heavy thespian lifting, there was potential here, but by the end you'd realised you'd watched the blockbuster equivalent of Billy the Kid vs. Dracula. Music by Harry Gregson-Williams.