Cowboys & Aliens (2011)
While taking in the schlocky, unblinking ludicrousness of the new B-movie Cowboys & Aliens, it becomes clear that this film relies too heavily on its winking title. With such an eye grabbing, straightforward title as this film has (the only one that could be more straightforward is Snakes on a Plane), you would think that the film would try to pack a few surprises for the audience. Unfortunately, Cowboys & Aliens does nothing of the sort. It never tries to raise the bar and exceed our expectations or its own for that matter. Sure, it’s entertaining enough and there are a few skull-rattling action sequences but that can only hide the fact that the film was not properly fleshed out for so long. This is especially alarming because the film was in the hands of Hollywood royalty (Steven Spielberg, Ron Howard, Brian Grazer, Jon Favreau).
From the articles I’ve read on the film, it’s loosely based on a graphic novel of the same name but was also an idea that was passed around Hollywood for quite some time. Last summer, Favreau, the man who gave Iron Man his A-List status, released his highly anticipated sequel to that 2008 hit. After sitting through Cowboys & Aliens, the feeling that this film was rushed out was inescapable, as practically every seen feels like it’s missing the heart that Iron Man had. Furthermore, the films set pieces are limited and they instead rely on the sprawling desert and rocky canyons for most of the battles. More money seems to have been dumped into the special effects department to bring the bulging-eyed aliens and their thundering ships to life. Considering the limitless pockets of some of the producers of this genre mash-up, you would think the film would boast a wider scope than it does.
The film follows Jake Lonergan (Played by the gritty Daniel Craig) who wakes up out in the desert with a nasty wound on his side and an enigmatic metallic bracelet on his wrist. He stumbles into the town of Absolution, where he discovers he is a wanted man for crimes he can’t remember. Hell, he can’t even remember his own name (For a small portion of the film, Craig’s character shows hints of Clint Eastwood’s Man with No Name). After he gets picked up by the sheriff and they are getting ready to ship him off to Santa Fe, much to the protest of Colonel Dolarhyde (Played by a growling Harrison Ford) who wants Lonergan for himself, strange ships attack the town and abduct some of the townspeople including Dolarhyde’s spoiled, unhinged son Percy (Played by a seriously awesome Paul Dano). While the ships attack, the metallic bracelet reveals itself to be a weapon and allows Lonergan to shoot one of the mysterious ships out of the sky. Dolarhyde and Lonergan soon team up to venture into the desert and locate the missing townsfolk and discover just what happened to Lonergan. They also find themselves to be pursued by a strange and beautiful woman Ella (Played by the gorgeous Olivia Wilde) who appears to know quiet a bit about Lonergan than he knows himself.
Cowboys & Aliens only scratches the surface of it’s true potential. We know that the film is capable of more and there are some scenes that work wonderfully. When the film is switched over to western mode, it’s charismatic and exciting. The characters leap off the screen and the film has echoes of spaghetti western auteur Sergio Leone. When the UFOs start attacking, the film looses it’s potential and doesn’t even flinch at the events taking place within it. It takes itself too seriously and the characters barely acknowledge the foolishness at hand. The jokes only come in the most straight-faced manner. “Don’t yank at it! It’s not your pecker!” says one character to another as he teaches him to fire a rifle. It would have been nice if the film stopped just for a moment and chuckled at itself. It never once pauses to do this.
What further makes Cowboys & Aliens such a disappointment is the countless clichés that riddle the film. Every time a character becomes alien chow, they deliver a mandatory last line. Every character has a triumphant moment, bad guys turn out to be descent men with a soft spot, unlikely allies band together, etc. It would have been a pleasant change of pace if the script would have avoided these and instead opted for roads less traveled. It’s a thrill to see the western back on the big screen but I would have liked for them to take a risk. Offer up something we haven’t seen before. It’s already fusing together two genres that operate at different ends of the cinematic spectrum. This furthers my suspicion that this thing was rushed out and not properly developed.
The best part of Cowboys & Aliens is the eccentric characters that inhabit it. I loved Daniel Craig’s silent but deadly Lonergan. I was just waiting for him to throw on a poncho and trade his cigarette for a cigar to chomp on. Ford seems to be hamming it up in his twilight as Dolarhyde. He has the films best lines and when it comes to his hostile interaction with a tribe of Indians, he soars. Wilde has a sexy mysticism about her but her character also causes the film to nosedive halfway through. I could have done without her side story. The script sees her as the salt that will add taste to the bland experience but it does little to shake things up. Sam Rockwell’s Doc is a likeable, timid underdog and Paul Dano is at his most deranged as Percy (Just get a load of that introduction of his character!).
Perhaps I’m burning out from all the grand, special effects heavy releases this summer. We’ve had four major superhero releases, one seasick pirates flick, a boy who lived, and now three alien invasion movies, all of which Steven Spielberg had a hand in. Don’t get me wrong, I like Spielberg but I think it’s time he moved away from the alien invasion movie for a while. I’m beyond stoked for War Horse and The Adventures of Tintin, both of which are directed by Spielberg himself. But the fatigue of all of his alien movies is setting in for this film fan, as we’ve seen War of the Worlds, Transformers,Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, Super 8,Transformers: Dark of the Moon, and now Cowboys & Aliens, all of which were directed by Mr. Spielberg or produced. Furthermore, when analyzing this summer, we had the superior Super 8 which was a magnificent character drama that happened to feature an alien and the grueling Transformers: Dark of the Moon which acted as more of an endurance test. The cherry on top of all this alien lunacy is Battle: Los Angeles, which was the bottom of the barrel as far as the sci-fi genre is concerned. Cowboys & Aliens, however, is just plain lifeless. It’s all dressed up with no place to go. I would compare Cowboys & Aliens to orange juice and pizza. It’s two things I love on their own but when put together; it just leaves a bad taste in your mouth. Grade: C