No, you’re not alone. I too thought a western/sci-fi mashup with Indiana Jones and James Bond could be pretty awesome. Not “would be”, mind you, just “could be”, because you just never know anymore. Am I right? I’m not naive, I know that even a movie with a solid cast can come up lacking. It’s just too bad that in a summer packed with predictable options, “Cowboys & Aliens” turns out to be that movie merely lives up to its name. It turns out to be a good reminder that even in cinematic escapism, a high-concept is sometimes simply just that.
A wounded man (Daniel Craig) wakes up in the middle of a southwestern desert circa 1875. Uncertain who he is or how he’s come to have a hi-tech gauntlet shackled to his left wrist. He becomes acutely aware of three riders approaching from behind and in no time, with much silence and violence, he takes them out, providing him with what every cowboy needs: a horse, a hat, and a six-gun revolver.
In typical Western fashion, this Man with No Name makes his way into a local mining town called Absolution. He gets patched up by the local preacher (the wonderful Clancy Brown), in typical“this is gonna hurt” fashion. (It seems there’s no town doctor here, just a guy names Doc (Sam Rockwell) running the local saloon). He then publicly humiliates the town’s bully, Percy (Paul Dano), in front of everyone, putting the petulant brat in his place. This scene, silently applauded by the locals, also draws the attention of Sheriff Taggert (Keith Carradine), who throws Percy in the slammer and recognizes this mysterious man as notorious outlaw Jake Lonegran.
Taggert and his men ask Jake to “come quietly” (in typical Western fashion) at the local saloon, in a scene that firmly establishes Craig in the genre. If you had any doubt that the big-eared English Craig couldn’t handle a conventional iconic Western role, well look no further. After fair warning, we witness Jake quickly dispense of his would-be captors. It’s a smartly choreographed sequence that has one of the best uses for a smoking gun barrel that I can remember ever seeing.
Jake has everything under control, until he’s cold-cocked from behind by the mysterious Ella (Olivia Wilde), the local beautiful woman (in typical Western fashion, the only beautiful woman who seems to never look like she needs a bath). Hmmm, there’s something odd about her. Why does she continuously follow around Jake, asking him if he remembers anything? Strange.
As if Taggert didn’t have his hands full, he now must now deal with Percy’s father, local cattle baron, Col. Woodrow Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford, playing yet again another gruffy old man role), who prides himself on making the town go round, is none too happy on his son’s current predicament. But Dolarhyde doesn’t demand the release of his son (which tells you quite a bit about what kind of pop he is), but rather he wants Lonegran for some past wrongdoing.
But before things heat up or anything can be settled: it’s time for aliens! They arrive at night (in typical fashion) glowing in the sky with metallic lassoes that whisk the locals off the ground, taking their victims to who knows where or why (it is somewhat explained later on, in typical convoluted fashion). When the dust settles, some key characters are missing, so a posse is formed to track these “demons” down, with (stereotypical) help from Dolarhyde’s right-hand man, Nat Colorado (Adam Beach, somewhat wasted), since he’s an Injun and all.
During the rescue mission, Jake’s memory slowly starts to return and we realize what that gizmo on his wrist does and where it’s from. They also run into his old outlaw gang (Walton Goggins is great, David O’ Hara is okay), as well as some native Chiricahua indians that aren’t too fond of white men who think fondly of themselves. They learn much more about these aliens (despite looking like many we’ve seen in other films, except for the creepy baby arms that come out of their abdomen) and why they’re here (gold! no really), so don’t you know that basically everyone we come across will have to set aside their differences and take out this alien threat, before all of humanity become tumbleweeds.
Coming off the success of “Iron Man” and “Iron Man 2”, director Jon Favreau is a likely fit to adapt another comic book, this time replacing arc reactors with more primitive weapons. It’s slickly shot by the cinematographer who worked on those two movies, Matthew Libatique (a frequent collaborator with Darren Aronofsky as well), yet at no point was I experiencing any visual spectacle. I mean, these are cowboys meeting aliens, dagnabbit! I was expecting those simple folk to be a bit more freaked out by these alien varmints!
Unfortunately, Favreau provides an unimaginatively safe tone for a movie that could’ve been a quirky, Sam Raimi-type comedy or a mysterious X-Files-type film. It falls victim to too many typical tropes of both genres and in the end gets tripped up in all them all, providing one of the most predictable movies I’ve seen in quite some time.
Scott Mitchell Rosenberg was one of the guys behind the comic (which also had the same simplistic title) from Platinum Studios, and he also had a hand in the script here. It would seem the main problem would be the total amount of writers involved in this project in the end, resulting in a very predictable plot that left me somewhat wanting. It’s a problem when I can immediately see where a movie could’ve gone, instead of marvel at where it took me.
“Cowboys & Aliens” has been in the works since around 1997 and over the years has seen different studios and talent involved in its creation. It feels like too many minds were involved, resulting in a watered-down, unoriginal screenplay, despite a concept that has never been approached before. Try and follow along and you may get the idea how congested it all became.
At one point writer/director Steve Odekerk (“The Nutty Professor II: The Klumps”) was involved, making one assume that the result would be a comedy. His only involvement wound up as a writing contributor to some extent. Then, around 2008, Robert Downey, Jr. (playing a lead role that was obviously altered once Craig stepped in) was involved and he was the one who got Favreau involved, but he left to do the sequel to “Sherlock Holmes”. So, Favreau stayed on, backed by Dreamworks (meaning Steven Spielberg), producers Brian Grazer and Ron Howard, and working with his screenwriters from “Iron Man”, Mark Fergus and Hawk Ostby. Then Damon Lindeloff (“Star Trek”), Roberti Orci, and Alex Kurtzman (“Transformers”), were brought in to replace Fergus and Ostby, bringing a final result that is much more serious in tone than the comedic elements present in the earlier incarnations of the script.
The movie would’ve been better off if only two of these writers were left to decide on an interesting angle and/or theme. It seems like all unique ideas were bucked off the saddle, in order to reign in an easier ride on the big-screen.
Thing is, I still enjoyed it. Partly due to the genre juxtaposition, but primarily because of the actors. I enjoyed watching Craig in a Western. Seeing the Englishman grimace with his steely blue eyes fit in nicely with the genre. He did seem a bit too stiff though. Regardless of how emotionally withdrawn or macho his outlaw character was supposed to be, there’s no escaping the awe of coming across a totally different life form for the first time. Thing is, I didn’t really get that for him. I did enjoy seeing him and Ford work off each other. It might’ve been because of their other well-known roles, but I felt despite working with some lazy dialogue, Ford was doing well with what he had to work with.
It’s too bad much of their material was so transparent. Any time an object was introduced, like a knife passed on from Dolarhyde to Taggert’s worried grandson, (played by last summer’s littlest airbender, Noah Ringer), you just know it’s gonna have a significant moment later on in the film. there just doesn’t seem to be that many surprises in the story, and in one with such a blatant premise, surprises are needed. Not even the twist with Wilde’s character is all that shocking. In fact, it makes complete sense, which is disappointing to me. I wanted my expectations and predictions thrown for a loop, I suppose.
This will never belong in the company of stellar Westerns of the past 25 or so years (“Silverado”, “Unforgiven” and “Open Range” come to mind), but I suppose it can’t really. Since I have a fondness for both genres, I was really hoping for it to be more satisfying. That, and because it had nothing to do with 3D or any other film franchise, the potential was strong. Actually, I could probably see this being more rewarding for someone who isn’t as well-versed in Western and Science Fiction films. But for those of us in the know, we see it all coming before it even happens.
Considering the source material, there are better Western comics out there that deal with the supernatural and the extraterrestrial. You would do well to check out “Weird Western Tales”, “Jonah Hex”, (skip that 2010 movie, though), and Jeff Mariotte’s brilliant “Desperadoes”, if you leave this movie unfulfilled, yet longing for such a genre mash. But being fans of the both genres as well as these actors, just doesn’t warrant having to put up with these easy writers.