Cinematic purists already know that the sci-fi genre is essentially a reimagining of the American West in space. Think about it: open frontier, lawlessness, violent strangers, the hopeful horizon, exploration and discovery. It should come as no surprise that director Jon Favreau would want to wed the two genres in a summer blockbuster.
Unfortunately, Cowboys & Aliens fails to register as either a good sci-fi flick, or a good western one. There seems to be no motivation behind the story and the characters are one-note archetypes. Worst of all, there is no convincing argument of why the aliens attack the rural desert of 1870s Arizona. Yes, they are going after gold. Yes, they harvest human beings. But why? Who are these E.T.s?
Daniel Craig plays Jake Lonergan, a man who wakes up in the desert with a weird, futuristic-looking device on his forearm and no memory of who he is and what has happened. Jake heads from the desert to the nearby town of Absolution, Arizona. At first, the little frontier town looks like a slice of Americana. Doc (Sam Rockwell) runs the local saloon. Sheriff John Taggart (Keith Carradine) keeps the peace. All seems well.
Then Percy Dolarhyde (Paul Dano) stumbles into town, guns ablaze, spouting off about his colonel daddy (played by Harrison Ford) and how no one can mess with him, otherwise his family will get up and move their lucrative cattle business to another destination. Everyone heeds Percy’s warnings, except Jake, who doesn’t appreciate the young man’s attitude.
Just when it looks like Jake is about to disrupt Absolution’s status quo, alien ships fly in and snatch up several of the town’s residents, including Percy, Sheriff Taggart and Doc’s wife. The remaining group of survivors decides to band together and track down the aliens. They want their people back, and they want their revenge.
Here’s where the movie begins to falter. At no point do the townsfolk look up and seem baffled by the aliens in the sky. The local preacher (Clancy Brown) says they might be demons, but other than that meager explanation, there is no head scratching about these mechanical beasts. It would have been a little more believable to have at least one character stop and say, “Wait a second, what just happened? What the hell is that thing the sky?”
Remember, this is a landscape dominated by horses and lassos. Automobiles haven’t even been invented; so anything that flies through the air and doesn’t have legs should come as a surprise. But it doesn’t.
The team of avengers, naturally led by Jake, includes a bunch of men with seemingly no motivation to hunt down the aliens. Most of them should get up and run away to the next state, maybe Cal-ee-four-nye-ay. Even Ford’s Woodrow Dolarhyde seems unmotivated. He’s supposed to be this bad-ass colonel who is feared by everyone, but he never sticks to that characterization. Woodrow quickly becomes a supporting character, and oddly, Ford feels like the odd man out in Cowboys & Aliens. The script doesn’t know what to do with him.
There’s even one point when Woodrow tells a young child who is tagging along for the attack that he’s like a son to him. Wait a second, if you have such severe father-son issues, then why are going after the aliens in the first place? Your real son is being held captive, but you don’t seem the least bit interested.
Jake’s motivation is apparently to find out what happened to his wife and who clamped this mechanical cuff on his wrist. The little device comes in handy, too. Jake is able to shoot energy bullets that look like little sonic waves. Again, not much of an explanation of why.
Perhaps the most egregious error in the film is the entire character of Ella Swenson (Olivia Wilde). She’s supposed to be some mysterious traveler, but the screenplay takes so many liberties with this character that it becomes almost laughable. Whenever the plot runs into a dead-end, Ella’s mysteriousness helps save the day.
Cowboys & Aliens could have been saved by flashy special effects and engaging action sequences, but unfortunately, in those departments, the movie fails as well. There is not much fighting in the film. The group of avengers simply head into the desert to find the alien mother-ship. When they find it, there’s a cliché standoff. Roll credits.
The CGI used to animate the aliens is impressive, and it’s fair to say that Favreau’s visual-effects team has achieved the near impossible: a unique alien design. But that’s just fancy window dressing.
If this was going to pass as a decent western, there needed to be something to hang your hat on instead of cool alien effects. The audience watches a bunch of uninteresting characters aimlessly walk through the desert for mysterious aliens who are never explained. Apparently, everything has to deal with gold, but even that storyline is undeveloped.
Craig does an admirable job with a difficult part. He holds his own, and brings some of that 007 take-no-prisoners attitude. I also appreciated Dano’s spoiled-child routine and Rockwell’s humor.
Ford is the real victim here. His character never blossoms and quickly becomes a bore to watch. He’s grimaced a million times before; this actor needs something else to do rather than just speak in a gruff voice.
Perhaps this is an example of what can go wrong when so many people take part in the writing process. The movie has five writers, and their finished product is a film that doesn’t go anywhere and doesn’t feature much.
Someone lasso this turkey.By John Soltes / Publisher / John@HollywoodSoapbox.com
Cowboys & Aliens
Directed by Jon Favreau
Written by Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman, Damon Lindelof, Mark Fergus and Hawk Ostby; based on a screen story by Fergus, Ostby and Steve Oedekerk
Starring Daniel Craig, Harrison Ford, Olivia Wilde, Keith Carradine, Sam Rockwell and Clancy Brown
Running time: 118 minutes
Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of western and sci-fi action and violence, some partial nudity and a brief crude reference
Click here to purchase Cowboys & Aliens on DVD.