This story and script – credited to six people (Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman, Damon Lindelof, Mark Fergus, Hawk Ostby and Steve Oedekirk) with god knows how many other invisible hands in it (including director Jon Favreau?) – is listed as being based on a comic book by Scott Mitchell Rosenberg, though I’d guess (without bothering to look it up) that the source mostly supplied the ‘high concept’ title. It’s sort of catchy (if not as witty as the redneck crime comedy Cowboys & Idiots) but also feels more like a menu than a movie – along with the ‘vs’ titles, it’s a throwing-together of keywords or search engine items rather than genuinely witty. There’ve been aliens out West before, of course, in things like episodes of The Time Tunnel and TV movies like High Plains Invaders – and the whole notion of alien invasions in the historical past has been a mainstay of Doctor Who since the 1960s, and crops up in things like Outlander even if there’s a Hollywood reluctance to make War of the Worlds with a period setting. A problem with this sort of concept is that movies tend to feel that the title is enough, and so we get a generic science fiction film and a generic western put together with results that are pleasant, entertaining and occasionally moving but somehow nothing to write home about.
Given the withering of the Western tradition – though everyone in the movies wants to make a cowboy movie and will find any excuse to do it – it’s a surprise that this works so hard on its Western angle. A pick-and-mix approach to the genre has one star (Daniel Craig) incarnate a spaghetti western archetype – he’s literally a Man With No Name, since outlaw Jake Lonergan has suffered amnesia after an alien abduction and has hazy Leone flashbacks to his nasty Streibery experience in a flying saucer – while the other (Harrison Ford) comes from a 1950s American melodrama tradition – cattle baron Woodrow Dolarhyde follows Donald Crisp in The Man From Laramie by having a useless cowardly sadist natural son (Paul Dano) and a manly unappreciated taken-for-granted adopted top hand (here, also an Indian – Adam Beach). It takes the Indian abduction theme of The Searchers and others but melds it with the alien abduction theme of recent X-Filesishness (which prompts the question of why any kind of abduction myth is such an entrenched part of American culture?) and has a posse of mutually hostile individuals and factions – including bartender/medical man Doc (Sam Rockwell) and a mystery gunwoman who turns out to be an alien (Olivia Wilde), plus some stalwart Indians, scurvy outlaws and character actors (Clancy Brown as a preacher) – band together to track the aliens who have snatched their loved-ones to keep a desert gold-extraction plant going (these aliens are interplanetary miners). It’s still basic, though: the good guys track the villains to their lair, effect a rescue and see off the varmints with bullets and dynamite.
The film has great images (an upside-down riverboat dumped 500 miles from any river it could travel on), a few nicely-thought-through character licks (you can bet someone was called in especially to write Harrison Ford’s anecdotes of his wild western youth) and exciting set-pieces involving swooping alien drones which lasso humans and Jake’s fight-back using an alien zapping instrument bonded to his wrist like a shackle. But it’s somehow disposable: the sort of movie where all the character names are taken from other movies, where every bit of business has been drawn from the back-catalogue (evoking The Man From Laramie isn’t the same as coming up with a fresh situation one-tenth as dramatic), where all the actors are doing other actors rather than playing people. It’s big kids dressed up playing cowboys and aliens with toy guns and marvel gadgets, and that’s enough to pass an evening – compared with, say, Wild Wild West, it’s a masterpiece – but it has that theme park ride feel of the Pirates of the Caribbean films and self-destructs pretty swiftly in the memory.
I think I’d like it better if it had a Frankie Laine-type theme song, too.