Review by Matt Barone (@mbarone)
The common perception of Cowboys & Aliens is that director Jon Favreau’s film, a book-to-screen adaptation of Scott Mitchell Rosenberg’s 2006 graphic novel, has the luxury of mashing together two well-worn movie genres: old-school westerns of The Searchers variety and alien invasion blockbusters (i.e., Independence Day). Had Favreau’s first post-Iron Man project been released a decade or so ago, that would have been the case.
In 2011, though, debuting in the wake of countless subpar to wretched extraterrestrial infiltration adventures, Cowboys & Aliens has the odd task of marrying a suddenly hot again six-shooter market (awakened by the success of True Grit) with a sullied bore-zone (blame Skyline and Battle: Los Angeles, specifically) and making the end result a major summer tentpole hoot. And that’s some tall order.
As Cowboys & Aliens meanders through its pedestrian storytelling and off-base tonal shifts, it becomes clear that Favreau prefers the Grit over Battle, or at least that’s the logical presumption to be made from a flick that spends the bulk of its time rehashing old, and infinitely better, John Wayne and Clint Eastwood productions.
Wasting some rather fresh alien designs and CG handiwork, the film is more interested in bombarding the viewer with more characters than it knows how to handle. Multiple subplots, vague character motivations, and supporting players who exist solely to spew out exposition take camera time away from the space invaders, which kick ample ass, looking like cross-breeds of H.R. Giger’s nightmarish Alien creations and a four-armed version of Cloverfield’s monster, sprinkled with the District 9’s prawns’ agility.
The truly frustrating thing about Cowboys & Aliens is that the latter participants are impressively rendered for naught. Stricken with the same botched ensemble ailment that he slogged through in Iron Man 2, Favreau balances too many storylines at once, leading to a handful of character deaths that are meant to induce sympathy yet inspire yawns. The script, credited to a whopping five heads (most notably Lost co-creator Damon Lindelof and Fringe co-creators Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci) plays like a patchwork of rough-draft outlines for character arcs that somehow found their ways to the screen.
And Cowboys & Aliens is a narrative mess for it. In a crowded summer that’s already yielded its fair share of satisfying budget-breakers (Thor, X-Men: First Class, Captain America: The First Avenger), it’s ultimately a non-event. Though it’s entertaining enough in the “lowered expectations” sense, Favreau’s disappointing pic isn’t even on Green Lantern’s tier. Forget about Michael Bay’s imperfect crowd-pleaser.
What Good Are Cool-Looking Aliens When They're Used As Frivolous Accessories?
The characters suffocate beneath the script’s stacked up mini-plots, but Favreau’s fortunate enough to have a bevy of strong actors in his posse here. Daniel Craig is nicely cast as the film’s lead, a "Man With No Name" type who strolls into a failed mining town, circa 1873, after waking up in a desert with no recollection of how he got there, a gaping wound on his side, a strange futuristic bracelet on his left wrist, and the task of knuckling up against three grizzled horsemen (Spoiler: He viciously fucks them up).
In the town, the drifter, whose name we come to find out is Jake Lonergan, receives medical attention from a nice-guy preacher (Clancy Brown) and forcefully knees a young troublemaker, Percy (Paul Dano), in the balls after the hooligan publicly humiliates the neighborhood bar owner, Doc (Sam Rockwell, wasted in a thankless comic relief part). Lonergan and Percy head to the slammer, right after it’s revealed that Lonergan is a wanted man, legally sought after for the death of a pretty hooker—about whom Jakey Boy daydreams. Percy’s agitated father, an iron-fist-waving cattleman, Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford, goofily snarling and irritatingly acting like he’s seen one too many Sam Peckinpah movies), heads into town to bail him out before he’s sent off to higher authorities, and that’s when the aliens show up.
The first major set-piece in Cowboys & Aliens is a blast, both figuratively and literally. Square in the middle of town, where The Good, The Bad, The Ugly-like showdowns would commence in another film, massive flying saucers firebomb the place in the dead of night, illuminating the dark sky with neon lights and the sight of townsfolk getting yanked into the air by spaceship-released lassos. Hitting about thirty minutes into the film, the breathless sequence is tense and, most importantly, a heavy jolt away from what’s previously been a standard cowboy story, save for a quick alien attack that happens off screen and lasts a whole of twenty seconds.
The film’s best scene, the initial extraterrestrial assault sets the bar higher than Favreau and company are able to reach throughout the rest of Cowboys & Aliens. The later alien highlights pale in comparison. One, a horseback chase against zooming aerial saucers, underwhelms, as well as stupefies (Yeah, sure, a horse can outrun a spaceship flying at the speed of an airplane), and the other, the movie’s overblown climax, starts off wickedly but quickly gets bogged down with spastic camerawork, incoherent hand-to-alien’s-hand combat, and all-too-convenient rescues. Watch and disgustedly fling your hands into the air as Ford’s character somehow locates Craig inside the mothership, in a matter of seconds without having ever been inside prior. There’s either a deleted scene lying on the floor of Favreau’s editing room, or the screenwriting gods have much to berate.
How Many Screenwriters Does It Take To Draft A Cohesive Story? Not Five, Clearly
Since the character-driven moments are fumbled, it’s up to Favreau’s once sure-handed execution of action and CG grandeur (read: Iron Man) to salvage the Cowboys & Aliens wreckage, but he’s curiously off-point here, even more so than he was with last summer’s Iron Man sequel. In his partial defense, you’d need to be Cecil B. Demille reincarnate to purify the screenwriting quintet’s vastly tainted script. Cowboys & Aliens feels as if each writer was given his own subplot to focus upon without any unified end-game: “You give Lonergan a clichéd backstory, I’ll work on the preacher’s useless bonding with Doc, and he’ll make Dolarhyde a walking contradiction without any explanation. Now…break!”
Which would have left someone with the unenviable task of writing Olivia Wilde’s cipher of a character, a bar-maid(?) who becomes a lame romantic target for Lonergan before revealing herself to be, shall we say, really out of this world. Halfway into the film, Wilde’s job turns into little more than that of an Exposition Spitter; the product of lazy writers seemingly too disinterested to weave story nuggets in through any kind of narrative subtlety, her role exists for no other reason than to tell Lonergan, but mostly the audience, every bit of information necessary to initiate the final battle. She might as well have cue cards taped all over her corset.
It’s safe to assume that Favreau and his heavyweight producers, Steven Spielberg and Ron Howard, pegged Cowboys & Aliens as both a shot of adrenaline into the recently mediocre aliens-as-villains genre and further momentum for the western front. With little going for it other than cheaply tolerable entertainment, though, their product is a downgrade for both sides.
Review by Matt Barone (@mbarone)