In New Mexico Territory, 1873, a man (Daniel Craig) wakes up in the desert with a strange metal bracelet on his wrist and no memory. He makes his way to the town of Absolution, where Reverend Meacham (Clancy Brown) treats his wounds. Sheriff Taggert (Keith Carradine) recognizes the man as the outlaw Jake Lonergan and tries to arrest him. Ella Swenson (Olivia Wilde) prevents him from escaping. Taggert and his deputies prepare to transport him and drunkard Percy Dolarhyde (Paul Dano) to Sante Fe to be tried.
Percy’s father, cattle baron Colonel Woodrow Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford), arrives with his men to secure his son and Jake as well, who has stolen from him. During the standoff, the town is attacked by alien ships. Percy, Taggert, and others are abducted by whiplike tentacles. Jake’s bracelet turns out to be a weapon and she shoots down a ship.
Dolarhyde, Ella, and others join a posse to track an injured alien. Jake travels to an abandoned cabin and recalls being abducted with a woman named Alice (Abigail Spencer) by the aliens. His memories are returning. He joins the posse, which comes upon a steamboat the aliens dumped far from any river and makes camp there. The alien kills Meacham. In the morning, most of the posse has deserted and Jake’s gang attacks. Jake, who had stolen the gang’s gold, tries to take control, but fails. The aliens abduct Ella. Jake jumps aboard the ship and attacks the pilot. The ship crashes and Ella is killed.
The posse is captured by Chiricahua Apaches, who blame them for the alien attacks. Ella’s corpse is put on a fire, but she emerges alive, nude, and unscathed. She is an alien who has come to fight the enemies who destroyed her home world and have come to Earth for gold. She says the previous attackers were only scouts. She also says that Jake has the secret of the aliens locked in his mind somewhere. They must defeat them, or they will exterminate all life on Earth.
The Apache medicine man cures Jake’s amnesia. He remembers Alice’s grisly fate, stealing the bracelet, and the location of the Mother Ship. They plan to attack the alien base, but first Jake leaves to collect his gang. Dolarhyde takes control. During the battle, Jake and Ella board the ship and free the captives, but Jake is captured. Dolarhyde rescues him and they escape. Ella remains and blows up the ship, killing herself. The rescued abducted begin to remember and the Sheriff reports that Jake was killed.
The film was directed by Jon Favreau, based on a 2006 graphic novel by Scott Mitchell Rosenberg. The script was written by Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman, and David Lindelof based on a story treatment by Mark Fergus and Hawk Ostby, Steven Spielberg and Jon Favreau were executive producers. It premiered at the 2011 San Diego Comic-Con, got mixed reviews and was considered a financial disappointment. Critics did not believe Favreau succeeded in blending the genres. The aliens were nine feet tall. An Uber-Alien inside the Mother Ship was partly transparent. They were all created by Industrial Light and Magic. Daniel Craig was chosen because he reminded people of Steve McQueen. The film’s prospects for success were not helped by a feud between Paramount Pictures and Universal Studios.
Many have tried to mix science-fiction and the Western. Practically every Star Trek series had one Western episode. I suppose that aliens, who have appeared to Australopithecus, the Victorians, and current and future generations, could just as easily have arrived in the Old West, but these stories do not usually blend well. The Western is a particular kind of morality play, a parable with familiar tropes that are very different from the wide-open science-fiction narrative. Sometimes it seems a little awkward, but Cowboys and Aliens is exciting and full of action, the aliens are cool, and it’s great to see Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford together. Alien invasion stories, whether they take place in the Arctic, the inner city, the jungle, the depths of the sea, distant space, or the Old West, are about an implacable power which forces a group of overwhelmed humans to work together to defeat their superior technology.