Cowboys and Aliens is chock full of talented people, but the movie as a whole falls flat because of what appears to be a weak script.  Jon Favreau and Harrison Ford pull out all the stops, but despite some great scenes and a cool concept, things eventually go off the rails turning it into a rental.

Part of the problem is that the plot IS the title of the film.  It’s almost all concept, which is a little like trying to eat a cake made mostly of icing.   As a comic book guy, I can imagine that a lot of the weakness came from the comic.  One of the laziest choices you can make in a comic book is to have the main character lose his memory.  It’s an excuse to focus attention on the exposition.

So when Jake (Daniel Craig) wakes up with no memory, a picture of a woman and a strange bracelet, he’s immediately beset upon by three ruffians.  After killing them, he walks straight back into town trying to figure out who he is.  But Jake’s character isn’t all that interesting, so later when we find out who he is and the woman, it isn’t much of a revelation.  And it’s never clear if Jake really remembers who he is even by the end of the movie (although he does remember the important events).  The end effect is that Daniel Craig is pretty stoned-faced throughout, making it hard for the audience to identify with him.  On top of the fact that he plays James Bond and he looks just as he does in Bond with different clothes and a hat.

The next problem is Olivia Wilde’s character, Ella.  (spoiler)  Ella is revealed to be an alien in a scene so stupid, I could feel the entire audience go, “Uh, what?”  And it’s not even like they bothered to make her a super cool alien via a CGI effect.  It’s just an excuse to drive the story forward in a way that could’ve been done a Helluva lot better.

On the other hand, Harrison Ford’s character, Colonel Dolarhyde, is a complex character with many levels.  Almost every scene with Ford is awesome, only Sam Rockwell is acting hard enough to share the screen with him.  But even he is forced into doing things that his character probably wouldn’t do in the context of the later scene.

In other words, a scene plays out and it makes sense by itself.  However, when taken into the context of the next few scenes, it’s completely undermined.  So anyone with a memory is left wondering if they sent ten different guys to write this thing and then cobble the script together later.

For instance, here’s an early scene that doesn’t give away the movie:  Three of the colonel’s cattlehands are watching cattle.  The lazy and drunk one goes to the river to take a dump.  While he’s there, there’s a flash and he falls into the river.  When he gets out, all the cattle and the two cattlehands are burned alive in a weird alien encounter.  Colonel Dolarhyde shows up, has the guy tied between two horses as if he’s going to kill him.  He questions him, blames the cattlehand for blowing up the cattle, then cuts one end loose and lets the horse drag him away.  (He’s got bigger problems by that time.)  By itself, when you hear this is a scene from Cowboys and Aliens, it makes a certain amount of sense, but as more information is added in other scenes, it unravels.

First, the cattlehand is portrayed as a drunk, he’s a new cattlehand and he doesn’t like the colonel.  So why does the guy stay in the same spot where the cattle were killed and wait for Dolarhyde to find him?

But okay, let’s say he’s too dazed and Dolarhyde just happens to be close enough to find him there, but far enough away not to see the flashing light.  Fine, so why does Dolarhyde strap him between two horses as if he’s going to kill him?  It’s clear to the audience the cattlehand is drunk and stupid, but not to Dolarhyde.  That would indicate that either Dolarhyde isn’t very observant or he just likes torturing people.  But neither is true.  In later scenes, Dolarhyde is revealed to be a tactician from the war and kind of a compassionate, although gruff and mindly racist, guy.  He’s also smart.

Consequently, it doesn’t make any sense that the colonel insists his idiot cattlehand blew up his cattle.  Why would he?  For fun?  Finally, Dolarhyde cuts him loose from one horse, but not the other, then sends the horse running dragging the helpless cattlehand behind him.  Isn’t that pretty much killing him?  Seems pretty harsh for a guy that later has a touching scene with a dying character who considers him a father figure.

Jon Favreau’s direction paces the movie nicely and makes it very watchable.  But the aliens are just stupid brutes.  They have all this technology, including technology to literally extract gold from the ground.  This is revealed about two thirds into the movie.  But that begs the question, if you have a space ship and you can just land and suck the gold out of a planet, why would you even bother killing the locals?  What does that get you?  And why do they even need gold?  Ford’s character makes a joke about it, but it’s never followed up with a satisfying explanation.  They just do, because that’s the movie.

During the course of the movie, there’s a few lines implying that the aliens are planning an invasion, but there’s another line explaining that the aliens consider the humans “insects”.  So what even bother killing the insects, it seems like a huge waste of time.

There are also moments where the action just stops abruptly so some of the actors can exchange some lines and then it starts up again.  Things are in the movie and happen, but are never explained.  Like when the group of characters take shelter in an overturned riverboat, which one of them notes is “500 miles from the nearest body of water that could hold it”.  I guess the aliens took it?  Never explained.  It just seems like an excuse to have a set piece to fight in.

It’s not that I’m against summer blockbuster fluff.  I liked Captain America a lot.  But Cap works within the context of its universe, Cowboys & Aliens doesn’t have a thought-out universe.  That’s what writers do.  They’re paid to think it all out, not defy the laws of the Universe just so you can do a cool shot of an alien or add another fight scene.  You have to fit the story to the logic of the Universe, not modify the universe to fit your story.  You can forgive some small things.  (Like in Captain America, the Red Skull has lasers, which seem too huge of an advantage.)  But when they begin to pile on like in Cowboys and Aliens (the dog’s name is “Dog”, Jake betrays his bandit buddies but has no escape plan, the aliens come after Jake just for his gold when they can get it out of the ground, the aliens kidnap humans to “study their weaknesses” but it’s clear they are technologically and physically superior, aliens are tough to kill one minute and easy another, etc.)  you just mentally check out and wait for the credits.

What happened?  Five writers, maybe too many cooks?  You won’t go back to the front demanding your money, but it might leave you pretty unsatisfied if you think about it.  Anyhow, I give Cowboys and Aliens 4 out of 10 keggers.