Simultaneously entertaining and derivative, this western-sci-fi hybrid concerns the invasion of a hole-in-the-wall post-Civil War desert town by bloodthirsty, probing extraterrestrials. The film opens on a gunslinger waking up in the middle of the desert with no memory of where he’s come from or how he managed to get a highly-advanced mechanism lodged onto his forearm. He strolls into the nearest town and immediately comes into conflict with a rowdy, violent young man, who, as it turns out, is the son of a landowner who keeps the town flourishing with his cattle business. The stranger is, soon, after, fingered for being the notorious train-robber, Jake Lonagan, and both him and the son are imprisoned. As they are about to be taken out of town, the cattle owner, Col. Dolarhyde, attempts to free his son from captivity before he’s brought up on formal charges. Just then, out of nowhere, flashes of light appear in the sky, and the town is attacked by UFOs that shoot energy beams blowing up half the town, as well as abducting at least a couple dozen townsfolk. The rest of the film concerns the searching party following the trail of the attacking aliens, led by Dolarhyde and Lonagan, who, due to the device on his arm and his mysterious past, is the best hope at fighting back.
This script is not the most wildly imaginative thing in the world. In fact, it’s downright formulaic at times, with elements like the obnoxious rich man’s son, the gruff, hardened Civil War vet, the lone, mysterious stranger riding into town and starting trouble, and, of course, the initially menacing, but ultimately, wise and benign Native Americans. The X factor of the alien invasion is momentarily a huge curveball, and, for a moment, gives hope that the film might transcend its trappings and become something wholly original and inventively exciting. However, after the original invasion/kidnapping, the pursuit of the aliens breaks down into the traditional “follow the tracks” formula, and, for a big part of the second act, the aliens could easily be replaced by John Ford-era evil Indians, and little would have to be changed. The finale is rousing, but none of the payoffs work as well as they should, and there are no truly memorable moments or lines that pop and resonate after the movie finishes.
The film is a success, however, and the star-power driven, visually stunning joys on display can be attributed to director Jon Favreau, cementing his status as an A+ list helmer of huge-budgeted tentpoles. Favreau, for the past year, has mentioned, in interviews, that he really wanted to make a western, but that the sci-fi bent on this one was the primary reason it got greenlit; luckily that divided mentality does not take a serious toll on the film, and neither genre overwhelms the other. The film never slows down enough for its flaws to become overwhelmingly apparent, the action is well-orchestrated and exciting, and the mood of the film, somehow, never quite veers off the edge into camp territory. His work with cinematographer Matthew Libatique has never been better, culminating in gorgeous desert vistas that would put John Ford and Howard Hawks to shame. The casting plays a huge part in the overall effect of the film; while romantic leads Daniel Craig and Olivia Wilde are rather one-note and bland (poor Wilde is basically playing Quorra from Tron: Legacy again), the cast is peppered with first-rate character actors such as Sam Rockwell, Adam Beach, Clancy Brown, Keith Carradine, David O’Hara, and Paul Dano. But in terms of actors, the film is bolstered down by the craggly, greyed visage of Harrison Ford. Growling, shooting, and horse-back riding with intense fervor, he utilizes his John Wayne-esque movie star stature to cut a truly legendary, epic figure out of his grizzled former Colonel. Without Ford’s presence, it is not hard to imagine this film would be a more forgettable, fleeting experience; as is, his efforts raise this film to memorable status, and exemplifies how much Ford represents a dying era of iconic, larger-than-life movie stars.
Recommended for fans of westerns, the cast (especially Harrison Ford), or Jon Favreau; while this is not as good as Iron Man, this beats Zathura or Iron Man 2 any day.