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Review: 'Cowboys and Aliens' is big-budget misfire

By Tom Charity, Special to CNN
Harrison Ford, left, plays second fiddle to Daniel Craig in "Cowboys & Aliens."
Harrison Ford, left, plays second fiddle to Daniel Craig in "Cowboys & Aliens."
  • "Cowboys and Aliens" stars Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford
  • The film is directed by Jon Favreau and has 16 producers
  • Reviewer says the movie is "turgid, incoherent, cynical or -- at best -- inane"

(CNN) -- Ever since the trailer set preview audiences giggling last year, there has been speculation about whether this big-budget genre-bender could fly.

The only ones who weren't laughing were the filmmakers, because whatever else it may be, "Cowboys and Aliens" definitely isn't a comedy.

Which is a pity, because director Jon Favreau has shown a light touch in the "Iron Man" movies, "Elf" and "Zathura," and the notion of aliens invading Arizona has a certain ring to it.

But he evidently decided that the key to this weird hybrid sci-fi Western was to play it straight, for thrills, scares and suspense. A big mistake, because the script -- attributed to six writers and based on Scott Mitchell Rosenberg's comic book -- turns out to be a bad joke, this year's "Jonah Hex."

The early scenes at least promise mystery.

A character played by Daniel Craig comes to in the high desert, a wound in his chest and a strange metal bracelet clamped around his wrist. After a brief run-in with three would-be bounty hunters, it becomes obvious he can't remember anything except how to fight.

'Cowboys and Aliens' like oil and water

At the nearest town, Absolution, he's identified as the outlaw Jake Lonergan, but he's sprung from jail after the town is dive-bombed by a fleet of UFOs and the sheriff and sundry citizens are abducted. Jake's bracelet zaps one of the craft seemingly of its own accord, and Jake joins forces with local cattle rancher Col. Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford) to track the injured "demon."

It's soon obvious that Favreau's West will be nothing more than a compendium of clichés, from the saloon fiddler who stops playing as soon as trouble walks through the door to the loyal mutt who attaches itself to the taciturn hero.

In the past, moviemakers like Sergio Leone have transcribed these stock elements into a baroque style, but Favreau and director of photography Matthew Libatique shy away from anything too fancy -- or even interesting. They somehow contrive to make a riverboat marooned upside-down in the desert look forgettable.

Ford's role is transparently modeled on John Wayne, specifically his iconic roles as the stern cattle baron in "Red River" and the obsessed avenger in "The Searchers," but somewhere along the line, the character has been watered down to make him more palatable. He's nice to kids and even makes peace with his Native American son (Adam Beach).

Yet these blandishments only make the film itself more insulting and insidiously racist in its patronizing treatment of the Apache -- and that's before we get to the glaring displacement that's going on here in respect to the gold-digging aliens who plan to colonize the West.

In any case, Ford -- whose acting rarely stretches beyond a painful grimace these days -- is playing second or even third fiddle to Daniel Craig's gruff, sub-Eastwood Man with No Memory and to Olivia Wilde, very fetching and completely out of her element as gun-toting tootsie Ella Swenson, a character who starts off as simply incongruous and becomes only more so as the film goes on.

Boasting 16 producers (including Steven Spielberg and Ron Howard), "Cowboys & Aliens" is the worst kind of blockbuster and a terrible hash: turgid, incoherent, cynical or -- at best -- inane.

This is not the West as it was or might have been; it's not the mythic West valorized by Hollywood in the glory days or the troubled land of the revisionist Westerns of the '70s. It's a Virtual West where everyone is firing blanks, the dead don't die and everything resets to zero before our eyes.