First thing’s first: Before going to see this movie, I actually did take the time to read the Cowboys & Aliens comic book. It was bad. Not AT4W bad, but still pretty bad. The aliens were terribly designed, the characters were all two-dimensional, and the plot was hopelessly thin. Last but not least, the story was designed to convey a ham-fisted allegory about how the west was being taken over by foreign forces, just because the invaders were technologically superior. That might not have been a bad thing if the book hadn’t been so damn convinced that this theme and its presentation were original, deep and relevant.
On the other hand, the book was completely devoid of amnesiac cowboys, and though the hero did have an alien device that could magically do whatever the plot needed, it was a gun and not a manacle. Right off the bat, it’s clear that Cowboys & Aliens is an adaptation of the book in title only. This comes as a relief, since the title was easily the best part of the source text.
I later learned that Cowboys & Aliens was actually a movie pitch long before it was a graphic novel. The pitch was first bought by Universal Pictures and DreamWorks, but the process took so long that Scott Mitchell Rosenberg — the pitch’s author — formed his own comic publishing company and got his concept made that way. Five credited writers, sixteen producers, and God knows how many studio execs later, Cowboys & Aliens finally got onto the big screen, mutating beyond recognition along the way. And as you might have guessed, the script clearly suffered for having too many cooks in the kitchen.
Don’t get me wrong, the movie starts out great. The first act is phenomenal, with a lot of great character development, solid editing, some great fight scenes, and a score that sounds like classical western, tinged with just the subtlest hint of modern rock.
The cast certainly helps a lot, as well. Daniel Craig is the first person we see, and he wastes no time establishing his character as a badass. He’s the very picture of a cowboy action hero — equally capable with his fists and with guns — though he also plays a troubled amnesiac remarkably well. Funnily enough, the role was originally cast for Robert Downey Jr. (who dropped out to reprise Sherlock Holmes), but I can’t see why. Nothing against RDJ, he’s an amazing actor and all, but he just doesn’t have that gruff kind of machismo that Craig has. The casting is really what makes this character work.
Opposite him is Harrison Ford, and goddamn, is it sweet to see Ford putting his talents to good use again. He plays Col. Woodrow Dolarhyde, a man so wealthy and powerful that everyone considers him above the law (every western has one). The locals speak of him in hushed tones through the first act, and in Dolarhyde’s introductory scene, Ford perfectly delivers a man who’s earned his reputation as a hardass. This is a return to form for Harrison Ford, and it is glorious.
What’s also interesting is in how Ford’s Dolarhyde and Craig’s Lonergan play off each other to express the theme of redemption (the movie is set in a town called “Absolution,” for God’s sake). Lonergan is a man who’s clearly done a great deal of injury and crime, and yet — much to his pain — he can’t make amends for sins he can’t remember. Compare that to Dolarhyde, who always carries around all manner of emotional burdens and dark memories from his days in war. It’s also quite interesting to see Dolarhyde connect with a young boy — played by Noah Ringer — in a clear effort to atone for what an asshole his own son turned out to be.
Speaking of which, Percy Dolarhyde is played by none other than Paul Dano. As a reminder, Dano made his name playing good-hearted and/or withdrawn characters in such movies as Little Miss Sunshine, There Will Be Blood and Where the Wild Things Are. As such — even though he doesn’t get much screen time — I got an odd sort of pleasure in watching Dano chew scenery as a boorish, spoiled, sniveling bully. No doubt about it, this guy can act.
Clancy Brown and Keith Carradine also make brief appearances, and both of them elevate the film nicely. Sam Rockwell gets a significantly bigger role, nicely establishing himself as the wimp of the cast in such a way that doesn’t make him overly annoying. Easily the weak link in this cast is Olivia Wilde, which came as a surprise to me after she turned out to be the best actor in Tron: Legacy. Wilde plays Ella, a mysterious woman who clearly knows more about Lonergan than she’s letting on. Naturally, Lonergan and Ella get a romance arc that feels totally forced. Far more importantly, Wilde plays “enigmatic” in a way that gives the audience nothing to really latch onto. By the time we finally learn what her character’s really about, it doesn’t come off as a shock so much as a foregone conclusion.
(Side note: To anyone who saw the trailers and was hoping for some Olivia Wilde nudity, get real. This is a PG-13 movie).
Really, Ella’s arc is a symptom of the larger problem that this movie has: After that amazing first act, the movie keeps losing momentum without ever getting it back. I’ve got two reasons why, and they both have to do with the action scenes.
For one thing, the action scenes are at their most effective when they focus on characters that we’ve come to empathize with. This should be self-explanatory. Some members of the core group die, as would be expected. Unfortunately, the deaths are totally mishandled. It’s bad enough when a movie stops cold for one character to get a drawn-out dying monologue, but this movie does it twice. Also, when the early action scenes involve a core group of characters, and the later action scenes reduce the number of name characters while diluting the ranks with so many nameless redshirts, that sudden switch in focus is going to create a level of emotional disconnect.
Having said that, I wouldn’t have minded a whole ton of nameless soldiers in the fight sequences if doing so would expand the movie’s scale, but no such luck. See, the first major alien battle takes place in a town. People are getting abducted, buildings are being destroyed, it’s awesome. But then the movie focuses on a small band of cowboys, and the focus shifts to them. Thus, the movie decreased in scale, and that’s a huge problem. After all, we’re talking about an alien invasion flick. The entire human race is at stake here, yet the movie never seems to embrace that. Our heroes aren’t fighting to save the world, they’re fighting to save the dinky town of Absolution.
Sad as it is that the movie’s focus shrinks, everything else in this movie gets progressively less interesting as time goes by. The storytelling keeps getting lazier. The cinematography and editing get less remarkable. The score becomes less western and more generic. Ford’s hardass edge starts dulling. Rockwell’s character doesn’t get any less pathetic. The character arcs get more predictable and cliched. The film hits its nadir with a lazy and terribly unsatisfying climax, followed by a boring resolution filled with nothing but foregone conclusions. I’m normally very grateful when a big-budget blockbuster doesn’t end with a sequel tease, but anything would have been better than the nothing we wound up with.
Nevertheless, the acting stays consistent throughout the movie, and all the actors do the best they can with this script. Likewise, the production design is wonderful throughout, and the aliens look particularly good, though there wasn’t a lot of consistency as to how much damage they could take in a fight.
Cowboys & Aliens was very clearly a movie designed by committee. It’s an amazing premise with a great cast that was tempered down to the safest and most harmless point that everyone behind the scenes could agree on. What’s really sad is that by deliberately toning down any innovation or bombast this movie may have had, the filmmakers doomed their work to be lost amid Sucker Punch, Fast Five, Transformers: Dark of the Moon, Captain America, X-Men: First Class, Green Lantern, and all the other movies released this year that dared to present their action scenes with imagination and energy.
When all is said and done, there are enough good things in Cowboys & Aliens that I can recommend a rental, but there’s absolutely no reason to go rush out and see this on the big screen. Still, at least it’s better than the comic book.