Great films have been built on the bedrock of extremely simple “gimmicks,” with a straightforward story allowing for great nuts-and-bolts filmmaking and unique methods to shine. Focus and laser-sharp plotting are rare commodities these day, which makes it doubly disappointing that a blockbuster action flick directed by a geek-friendly director didn’t exploit those qualities to construct anything interesting on top of them. In this case, the flavorless result is Cowboys & Aliens, a waste of a film that expects a great cast to make something out of nothing while surrounded by stock action and stale spectacle. The actors involved are no doubt great and the filmmaking is thoroughly competent, but it all adds up to a film that resembles its own tie-in coloring book, before the kids are let loose with the crayons.
Again, the setup is decidedly simple: Daniel Craig’s Jake Lonergan wakes up in the middle of the desert with no memory of his past and an odd metallic device affixed to his wrist. After dispatching a curious batch of passerbys that consider turning him in for bounty, he struts into the town of Absolution and is recognized as an infamous thief. Then the aliens attack. As they snatch folks and explode buildings with reckless abandon, Jake discovers his wrist device can bring down the alien ships. He’s soon tied up with a troupe of folks with missing loved ones that includes Harrison Ford’s Dolarhyde, the local cattle magnate looking to retrieve his son, as well as Sam Rockwell’s saloon owner “Doc” who is looking for his wife, the mysterious Olivia Wilde who is looking for “her people,” and young Noah Ringer as Emmet Taggart who is after the town’s sheriff– also his grandad. Other character actors like Walter Goggins, Clancy Brown, Keith Carradine, and Paul Dano all show up for stretches, and everyone is energized and engaged, but they just can’t escape sterile writing that gives so few of them any opportunity to do anything interesting.
It’s a credit to Daniel Craig that he so convincingly inhabits such a thinly written Man With No Name doppelganger as Lonergan, and imbues the part with some charm and wit without the benefit of the kind of cleverly subtle writing that served folks like Eastwood well in so many films. Nor does Craig get much of an opportunity to stretch his action muscles as a concise bit of asskicking at the film’s start, a little bit of intense horseback riding, and some fake wrist kickback from his alien device is all the action he gets. When the film stages a climax for Craig that has him standing stationary at the end of an alien hallway, simply blasting creatures one-by-one as they crawl around the corner before they ever get close enough to be a threat, you know something is terribly wrong.
Emotionally Rockwell fares a bit better with his small background arc, though it’s still ultimately Rockwell himself doing the heavy lifting for the script. Harrison Ford will surely delight many by bringing his all to the best written character in the movie, who begins as something of a local villain but ends up the center of a genuinely touching paternal struggle– truly the only blip on the otherwise flat-lining interest-EKG meter for this film. As for the romantic side of things, Olivia Wilde’s character is beyond silly, completely unconvincing, and the romance is undercut by the nature of who/what she is, and that the nameless cowboy is still in the process of reclaiming his memories of a lost love. Wilde herself is fine, and this isn’t the first western to coast on an inert, going-nowhere romance, but that’s not an isolated bit of carelessness from the film.
The villain characters in the film, the titular “aliens” (or demons, as most in the film choose to refer to them) are inert threats. The ships are the same boring designs you’ve seen and will see a dozen times, and their abduction lassoing trick isn’t enough to jazz them up. The aliens themselves are similarly stock-standard, CGI beasts with little originality or freshness to their design. The look of the aliens would have been a great element to spice up this flat tapestry, but perhaps due to some need to ground them and make the basic conceit of the film less silly, they’re homogenized hulks flying around in dull ships. Even the one attempt to add something unique to their design –a set of chest-emerging fleshy forearms– doesn’t really make physiological sense except to make wrapping up one particular character’s arc a little easier. Worse yet is that while obviously an intelligent species, they pretty much act like savage beasts that scrape and scrap around in battle. This isn’t to say they’re understandably aggressive or animal in their actions, just that they do stupid things like, for example; wildly claw at people hidden in holes when they could clearly reach them. That specific example isn’t so bad, until the alien makes itself vulnerable by reaching into the hole with its dumb baby arms, which are clearly shorter than their main arms. There are some clever design elements here and there among the alien’s accoutrement (the mining, transfer, and storage apparatuses in the ship have a neat look to them, with liquified gold traveling around like water on string), but the majority of it is as uninspired as the script.
As for the aliens, it’s even worse that any sense of menace from them as a species is rendered moot as we never see any organization or communication, and it never feels like there’s a significant number of them. This could work if there was more of a sense that we were really only seeing the bits and pieces the human see, but a few character get right up in the guts of the alien base and it mostly seems deserted. That’s not scary.
As the plot continues and the band of folks continue their search, Jake continues to remember the thoroughly unremarkable circumstances of his amnesia and alien wrist-gift. He also encounters his old band of thieves, a tribe of native Americans also bugged by the spacemen, and ultimately ends up attacking the alien base itself. The only remotely exciting or memorable action sequence among all this is the climactic battle, but even that is so chopped up and devoid of clear stakes (we never know how many aliens there are, and all suggestions of organized combat are quickly tossed out) that it barely registers. It’s the kind of battle where the tides change for no reason other than it’s time for one side to start winning, and because the music swells. There’s no progression, no sense of structure, and it’s cut up by the intensely boring bullshit that occurs in the alien base. Favreau has a clear sense of how to shoot coherent action beats, but they don’t connect in an exciting way or possess any exhilarating flair, and a messy tapestry of dust, CGI scales, and falling horses isn’t particularly entertaining on its own. I was also shocked to find that the film is kind of ugly, with flat photography and some distractingly lazy color timing choices that made for some terrible visual transitions.
The film could have gotten away with being a messy mash-up if either genre was particularly well represented, but Cowboys & Aliens brings nothing new to the science fiction genre, and it is not a real western. The western genre in particular requires an embrace of a bit of melodramatic grandstanding, a little bit of exaggerated romance. Dusty deserts and stoic cowboys are good subject matter for deliberately paced tales of detail, texture, and broad subtext. What they don’t make good backdrops for is the same boilerplate summer movie bullshit that culminates with a thing that has to be gotten to the center of a thing to blow up a thing. I don’t think the general crappiness of Cowboys & Aliens suggests that the old west and the extraterrestrial need not ever mix, but it does suggest that you need more than the barest of mashup gimmicks to carry a shitty script. At a point when a smaller alien movie releasing at the same time is the best film of the year in any genre, there’s not much of a reason to waste time with such humdrum.
Out of a Possible 5 Stars