When you offer audiences a movie entitled Cowboys and Aliens, then it should not come as any surprise that viewers will likely expect something grandiose and over-the-top and fun. A movie called Cowboys and Aliens should exhibit a go-for-broke mentality, with wit, excitement, action, suspense and intrigue, and deliver a borderline gonzo night of entertainment at the multiplex of your choice. When you toss in Jon Favreau as director (Iron Man, Iron Man 2, Elf), and Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford in the leading roles, this should be so goofy that it finds a way to work…unless of course they were to make the mistake of allowing their script and their film to take itself way too seriously. And to my utter dismay, Cowboys and Aliens takes itself way, way too seriously.
Modestly adapted from the 2006 graphic novel by Scott Mitchell Rosenberg, Cowboys and Aliens plays things straight for a little while. Set in 1873 in a dusty, dirty old Southwestern town known as Absolution, a man (Daniel Craig) awakens with a nasty wound in his gut and no memory of who he is or how he ended up unconscious in the hot desert sun. Almost immediately he notices a strange, heavy, metallic device on his left wrist and quickly figures out he cannot remove it. Dispatching some heavies that stumble upon him, we learn that the man is quite adept at fighting and vanquishing foes. As the man migrates into Absolution and encounters town locals, the man gets involved in another kerfuffle with Percy Dolarhyde (Paul Dano), the troublemaking son of the gruff and bitter retired cattle rancher, Woodrow Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford). The Sheriff of Absolution (Keith Carradine) recognizes the man as Jake Lonergan, a wanted criminal with a hefty reward available for his capture. After Percy’s careless actions result in his being arrested, the Sheriff eventually subdues Jake and throws him and Percy in the clink, with plans to transport them out of Absolution once and for all.
At nightfall, Woodrow arrives with a cavalry of stock caricatures from old Westerns of the past and as he demands the Sheriff release his son, something appears in the distant skies. Arriving closer and closer, no one has any clue what they are seeing until explosions decimate the town and insect-like ships snatch up people from the ground as if they were roping cattle. Absolution is under attack but from what? And why? And how? Quickly, Absolution residents realize their guns and horses stand little shot of defeating this bizarre and strange new enemy.
A posse of sorts is assembled, featuring various townsfolk and Woodrow, Lonergan, and the beautiful Ella Swenson (Olivia Wilde) who forces her way along for the ride. She is drawn to Jake and is seemingly more in tune with what is happening than others may be aware. Finding their way, this motley crew of sorts sets out to follow the distinctive tracks present in the dirt and hopefully put forth a plan to eradicate this threat from the sky once and for all.
I will give you this…Cowboys and Aliens is an ambitious idea; one which might as well have originated from a 4:00 a.m. brainstorm session with the assistance of excessive exhaustion and/or alcohol. The actual origins of the project date back to 1997 when Scott Mitchell Rosenberg saw his pitch receive a greenlight and get placed into development at DreamWorks and Universal Pictures. Directors and writers have come and gone but when the graphic novel was published in 2006, the film finally gained traction. Curiously, after all of this time and energy spent, Rosenberg’s source material seems to be manipulated so much that he does not receive a writing credit for the film adaptation of his own creation. He is credited with helping craft the story, but it appears that he likely lost input and control of this project a long time ago.
Cowboys and Aliens has no cohesiveness, no synergy between its competing genres. Daniel Craig is able-bodied but reduces his line readings to short, stunted utterances. His Jake Lonergan is a man with limitless fighting skill but only a surface-level ability in communicating. Harrison Ford is actually quite fun to watch playing the irascible and grumbly old cattle rancher, who gets the benefits of spitting hilarious one-liners which deliver the film’s only moments of lightheartedness. Olivia Wilde’s turn as the mysterious Ella is not bad, but as much as she tries to make us care about the only substantive female character in the film, she is betrayed by a screenplay that seems to have no idea how to properly utilize her. A twist with her character is so bungled and mishandled that the whole film nearly derails midway through. Good actors such as Sam Rockwell, Clancy Brown, and Adam Beach are left with very little to do and when emotional arcs come into play for them, you simply do not care in the least little bit.
The film is even technically flawed at times. The eventual reveal of the alien beings are underwhelming and their movements from a distance are rather distractingly obvious and synthetic. Surprisingly, with a film of this scope, there are syncing flaws in the soundtrack which are rather inexcusable. Lonergan’s attempts at using a stone to try and break off his wrist apparatus is one noticeable example, and much of the film feels hurried and slapped together. In fact, some of the below-the-line work on the film is rather alarmingly subpar, save Matthew Libatique’s noteworthy cinematography.
I just never really enjoyed Cowboys and Aliens all that much. Embarrassingly, I admit that I fell for two juvenile jump scares that rendered me kicking myself as soon as they happened. But the film never captivated me in the slightest way. In the days removed from watching the film, the entire project feels as if Favreau and his team were trying to hold everything together with a little bit of glue here and some CGI touch-ups there, all the while clinging to the hope that from a distance things wouldn’t look all that bad.
The misfire here is that by not establishing any elements of tongue-in-cheek humor to any of this and playing it mostly straight, the chance to engage viewers in something new and unique is lost and suppressed. Completely forgettable, Cowboys and Aliens is nothing more than an uninspiring shoulder shrug of a way to pass a couple of hours and blow through some hard-earned cash.
There are some movie genres that fuse beautifully together. Science fiction and film noir merged to create art in Blade Runner (1982) and the gangster genre coupled with the musical in Guys and Dolls (1955), on stage first, then onto film. Horror has even crashed together with comedy way back in Abbott and Costello meet Frankenstein (1948) and more recently in the Scream franchise. But of course, there are also moments when the merging of two genres goes horribly off the rails.
Billy the Kid vs. Dracula (1962)? Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (1960)? Paint Your Wagon (1969) in which the western was merged with the…oh God, this hurts, musical? Yep, Clint Eastwood and Lee Marvin actually sang in this terrible mess of a film; two genres that never should have been merged. They happen.
However when you get a big budget summer movie blockbuster directed by the man who brought Iron Man (2008) to life you expect something very special. When that same film stars Harrison Ford and Daniel Craig, you sure expect more than we get in Cowboys & Aliens, which is a real mess of a movie. Without a doubt one of the dumbest plots in recent years, you will find yourself scratching your heard wondering what the hell they were thinking when they put this mess together. It looks terrific, it really does, but it is not a very good film…at all.
The town: Absolution, ruled by a tough old bird portrayed by Harrison Ford, who snarls almost every line he speaks in the film, perhaps thinking this makes him threatening or menacing instead of just…silly. Into “his” town comes a mysterious man with no name, a gunslinger portrayed by Daniel Craig who cannot remember his name, who he is, or anything for that matter. Attached to his arm is a futuristic bracelet of some sort that turns out to be a weapon. When an alien spaceship descends over the town, the people are stunned because they simply have no knowledge of anything like this. Is it God? The devil? Who can say, but one thing is sure, these “things” are hostile and very nasty. So the cowboys go to war with creatures vastly more intelligent than they are, with machines that fly at enormous speed long before man had flown, with weapons that incinerate, with the ability it seems to wipe out minds.
Initially I admit to thinking this might not be a bad idea for a film, I mean any excuse to see a western is good enough for me, but about twenty minutes in I knew the film, and the audience were in very deep trouble.
Let’s start with the “acting.” There was a time when Harrison Ford was one of the more underappreciated actors working in movies, with the ability to offer up an honest, full-bodied performance such as the ones he gave in Witness (1985) and best of all in The Mosquito Coast (1986). He is equally fine in light romantic comedies like Working Girl (1988) and admittedly I have longed to see the actor in a western, after all Star Wars (1977) and its sequels were westerns in space were they not? If they were ever to remake The Searchers (1956) and there is talk, Ford is the man to step into the John Wayne role. But here, my God, he’s terrible, snarling his lines like a wounded Charles Bronson, grimacing his features into cement, never creating anything remotely real or a man for us to care about. Granted he’s the town’s top man, and not supposed to be nice, but you can play that and still be charming, as Johnny Depp and Jack Nicholson have shown us in many of their performances. 007 himself Daniel Craig is wasted in the role that Clint Eastwood might have played years ago, but would have had the good sense to turn down. He does what he has to do, but brings nothing to the role of any great interest.
So with this much star power, I mean we are talking James Bond and Indiana Jones, working with the director of Iron Man (2008), how does a film go off the rails so totally? As Norman Jewison has said over and over, “It begins with the story”, and he’s right, without that there is no film. Think about it, the best films have a great story…always. Not even a director as talented as Jon Favreau can make a film work when the story stinks, and this story stinks to high heaven. Favreau may have thought audiences might respond to spaceships soaring over such iconic western landscapes as we have become used to seeing, but for me it was insulting, like seeing Jesus and the disciples wandering in Monument Valley, John Wayne country in The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965) a big budget film about Christ. Not big budget enough for them to go to Israel to shoot on location though. With Cowboys & Aliens they should have spent some more cash on a decent story.
A really bad movie…it’s not even fun.