How can you begin to fuck up a movie called Cowboys & Aliens? As it turns out, the same way you fuck up Hot Tub Time Machine, or some people think you fuck up Snakes on a Plane (I myself maintain that the latter film was the best possible version of itself): by coasting on the awe-inspiring cheesy awesomeness of the title, and making something that delivers on what that title promises in the most unimaginatively literal way, while otherwise going through the motions of a particularly unexceptional plot. Though whereas Hot Tub Time Machine in particular compounded that problem by being not remotely what I think most of us would probably come up with if we were told to come up with a plot for that title, Cowboys & Aliens is quite possibly the most effective marriage of cowboys and aliens that we were likely to get, in the year 2011 anyway; I have no real argument against the film's execution of its concept other than that it is brutally boring, and perhaps it is the case that cowboys and aliens is a good idea for a comedy sketch or a video game, but not so much for a 118-minute feature film.

The story's genesis is absurdly long for such an elemental concept: in 1997, Scott Mitchell Rosenberg of Malibu Comics sold the idea to Universal Pictures, which was originally to be written and directed by Steve Oedekerk. He left, the project lied dormant for ages, Rosenberg adapted it into a comic book in 2006, it got revived with Robert Downey, Jr. in the lead, Jon Favreau jumped in to direct, Downey left, and finally, in early 2010, nearly a decade and a half after Rosenberg first conceived it, the film began production, ultimately to boast a fucking insane roster of A-list writers: besides Oedekerk, the story is credited to Hawk Ostby and Mark Fergus, two members of the equally huge team it took to get Children of Men off the ground (though they are here as Favreau's boys, having also contributed to the first Iron Man). Ostby and Fergus also worked on the screenplay, alongside the team of Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci (J.J. Abrams protégés who also owe us all an apology for Transformers and its unholy sequel), with a final dusting of pixie dust courtesy of Lost show-runner Damon Lindelof. A sufficiently dedicated student of each writer's style could no doubt pluck out what elements each of them contributed - I think the Kurtzman/Orci material might include the asinine "alien gold-mining" subplot, but that is merely a guess - but I'm rather less interested in the specific famous people who worked on Cowboys & Aliens, than in the fact that with this much fame comes a concurrent amount of ego, particularly since all of these famous people are especially famous for their bombastic popcorn movie concepts, and the resulting screenplay is a slurry of all the ideas all of these people crammed in throughout a number of ill-merged layers of writing. How many of them got credit just as a contractual matter? I cannot say. But with six credited authors - seven if we include Rosenberg - Cowboys & Aliens never really had a prayer at turning into aught else but a catalogue of genre elements kludged together and thrown into theaters still all moist and drippy.

And what did these many men all join forces to perpetrate? A man with no name (Daniel Craig) and a strange device on his arm wakes up with no memory in the middle of the desert, and kills a trio of white scalp-hunters, taking their guns and supplies (whatever else is true about the movie, I admire in the extreme that it does not dick around getting started: Craig sits up, dazed and sweating, in the very first shot), and then arrives in the dusty frontier town of Absolution, New Mexico, where's he's patched up by the laconic preacher (Clancy Brown), before the slightly less-laconic sheriff (Keith Carradine) identifies him as the notorious outlaw Jake Lonergan, and is about to ship him off to Santa Fe to be tried, when the aliens show up and blast Absolution all to hell and steal several townsfolk. Since one of those townsfolk is Percy Dolarhyde (Paul Dano), the sociopathic idiot son of the local cattle baron, Old Man Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford), an angry and mean sort, presses Lonergan into his service as an alien hunter, since Lonergan's arm-thingy turns out to be the only weapon anybody has that can kill the aliens or their ships.

And from there: trekking backwards and forwards and up and down through the New Mexican landscape, shot with appropriately mock-Fordian pictorial awe by Matthew Libatique, while Harry Gregson-Williams's rousing, Western-ish score (much the best part of the whole movie) sets the scene for all number of grand events in which tough-as-nails frontiersmen use all their pluck and grit to combat the relentlessly superior technology of the aliens in front of them. There are a few Deep Dark Secrets to uncover, though not very many; an obvious one involving Ella, the unconvincingly pasted-on love interest played by a surprisingly not-anachronistic Olivia Wilde; an arbitrary one involving Dolarhyde, whose character is rendered largely incoherent as a result of all the jockeying about to make sure that Harrison Ford gets to play a bad guy who isn't actually a bad guy.

Favreau, who did such a bang-up job with the goofy techno-theatrics of Iron Man just three years ago, isn't dealt a very good hand, but he proceeds to screw things up anyway by treating Cowboys & Aliens with a suffocating degree of gravity; in one interview or another, he suggested that he was making a sci-fi Unforgiven, which isn't that far off the mark, certainly not in terms of how miserably glum it all was (in terms of quality, meanwhile... if what Unforgiven needed to be great was to have spaceships in it, then I assume Clint Eastwood would have damn well added spaceships), and I cannot help but wonder: is this where we, as a culture, have arrived? That a movie whose very title is Cowboys & Aliens should feel the need to quash its own sense of fun, of (dare I say) camp? Because a campy Cowboys & Aliens is pretty much the only thing I at least have ever expected or wanted since the project was first rumoured a decade ago or more.

Instead: drab action scenes with fairly addled editing (the film is generally plagued, in fact, by weak editing and, oddly, even worse sound mixing), and characters looking all intense and brooding like the story they're in is serious and haunting and epic, instead of a muddy mess of ideas and generic conventions that are not married elegantly, but simply stuck next to each other over and over again until the movie stops. That is, there is little that actually gets to the matter of how cowboys and aliens might regard one another; once the initial shock is over, the Westerners simply adapt to fighting the science-fiction invaders with no more sense of wonder or inspiration than marked the hateful Battle: Los Angeles.

Okay, alright; it's not nearly that bad. Really, it's just a more extreme version of Iron Man 2: Favreau is so intoxicated with a not-very-good story that he focuses all his energies on exploring it in boring little chunks, forgetting along the way to put any spark or life in what is, after all, meant to be a fun movie. And in the end, Cowboys & Aliens isn't bad, but just appallingly mediocre: joyless, airless, slowly scratching its way across the screen in big frowny moments until it ends. There are the odd charms: Ford at least is absolutely having a blast playing a grouchy old cowboy with a gun and just enough Han Solo in him that the vaunted "Ford vs. Craig" hype isn't completely wasted. But it's a small note of pleasure in what is otherwise one of the most perfectly flavorless movie in a summer that has done much to push the boundaries of the word "anodyne".


NB: And that, in 2011, a movie can get away with depicting Native Americans the way this one does? Absolutely precious.