Cowboys & Aliens (2011) / Western-Sci Fi
MPAA Rated PG-13 for violence, partial nudity and language
Running time: 118 min.
Cast: Daniel Craig, Harrison Ford, Olivia Wilde, Sam Rockwell, Clancy Brown, Adam Beach, Paul Dano, Abigail Spencer, Noah Ringer, Keith Carradine, Raoul Trujillo
Director: Jon Favreau
Screenplay: Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman, Damon Lindelof, Mark Fergus, Hawk Ostby
An extremely loose, glossy adaptation of the relatively obscure 2006 independent studio graphic novel of the same name by Scott Mitchell Rosenberg, Cowboys & Aliens isn't the first mash-up of Westerns and science fiction (Westworld, Wild Wild West and Back to the Future Part III are other examples), but it is one of the first in a popular burgeoning trend in mixing genres that has seen books like "Pride and Prejudice & Zombies" become popular. The reason to create such a film is that one can appeal to two types of fans, here fans of Westerns and sci-fi action flicks, and maximize profit at the box office. Though the Westerns eventually made way for science fiction flicks to be Westerns in space (the 'new frontier'), unfortunately, at least in the case of Cowboys & Aliens, the elements cancel out one another. The style, pacing and conventions of both genres will leave Western fans annoyed by the noise, CGI and fast-paced cuts of horrific action once the alien plot begins to take over, while those sci-fi fans looking for some good fights and explosions will be bored by the more leisurely pace and character-driven storylines that are the bread and butter of any good Western tale.
Set in 1873, Daniel Craig (Quantum of Solace, The Golden Compass) emerges in the beginning of Cowboys & Aliens in full Jason Bourne mode, waking in a desert in Arizona with a serious injury, a bout of amnesia, and an innate ability to kick ass instinctively. Not to mention a strange device, a large metallic bracelet that is latched on to one of his arms, that springs to life as a form of self-protection and unleashes with a thunderous boom of laser energy at whatever it points at. Others reacting to him know him as Jake Lonergan, a wanted man who may have been an outlaw in his pre-amnesia days. He gets into a tussle with Percy Dolarhyde (Dano, Knight and Day), the son of a wealthy, powerful (and racist) cattle rancher, Woodrow (Ford, Crystal Skull), but whatever beef they have between them gets put to rest when Percy and several other denizens of the small mining town get rounded up by giant flying ships and taken to whereabouts unknown. The odd couple set about rounding up some men (and a woman named Ella (Wilde, Tron: Legacy) of their own to track down their loved ones and put an end to the bizarre and dangerous newcomers who are no friend to the locals.
Cowboys & Aliens is marketed as a cheeky comedy, the kind that director Jon Favreau (Iron Man, Iron Man 2) has been very successful in bringing to the big screen in his prior films. The laughs are mild, though, with the only substantive suggestion of legitimate comedy coming from the film's title, a play on the "cowboys & Indians" phrase to describe Westerns. However, once the storyline emerges, most of it plays out as deadly serious, with the exception of Sam Rockwell's (Moon, Frost/Nixon) comic relief characterization.
Favreau shows more of a sensitivity and a patience for the Western aspects of the film, which is commendable given his first foray into the genre. Not so much in his set-up of the conflict with the aliens, which feels forced and with more emphasis on the horrific nature of the hulking alien species and the dazzling dragonfly-design spaceship flight displays than in telling a compelling tale of the potential conquest of Earth. In many ways, it is the reverse of Avatar, this time an alien race coming to Earth to mine for precious resources (here, gold) and decimating the local life, while the humans are ill-equipped to take on the technologically superior and advanced weaponry of the outsiders raping their land. The screenwriting credits boast of no less than six seasoned writers, which is usually a sure sign that the script has undergone a number of rewrites before coming up with one the studio considered to be satisfactory. It is also the weakest element, by far.
Craig's character, as well as that of Ford, are bad men with good qualities underneath, nuanced thanks to the quality of the actors to be more than just white hat and black hat Western archetypes. Olivia Wilde is the (no pun intended) wild card, as the enigmatic potential love interest, Ella Swenson. The creatures are behemoths that look slightly bug-like in the face, with an added creep factor involved when they open their chests to reveal an extra set of slimy arms to grab people with.
In essence, the film is about how humans need to put aside petty differences and lust for money in order to tackle the bigger problems that threaten us all, represented by giant alien spacecraft and creatures that will kill God-fearing and Atheists, law-abiders and lawless, cowboys or Indians, and rich or poor alike. It's a strength-in-numbers proposition, telling us that there is no problem so insurmountable that it can't be solved if we all band together to try. There is a sense of irony in the fact that the aliens are essentially doing what the Europeans did with those peoples who were considered indigenous to the Americas, though that is a theme mostly left underneath the surface of this rather superficial film.
So, what exactly is wrong with Cowboys & Aliens if the direction is good, the actors are terrific, the special effects top notch, the Western arc solid, and the score a perfect complement to the action? Alas, the film sinks when it should soar. The Western parts are fine, but when continuously cut with the loud and noisy action, particularly not very inventive action, the tone isn't maintained very well, despite Favreau's best effort. This all results in the marquee war between cowboys and aliens, and the aliens aren't developed beyond being futuristic in their engineering, yet barbaric in their demeanor. We learn little, and without much in the way of character development beyond them gearing up for the battle scenes, we have little rooting interest other than the basic good guys vs. bad guys scenarios that make many Westerns too pat to entertain today's audiences.
If you like your science fiction monsters as old fashioned as your Westerns, perhaps you'll enjoy this effort enough as a reasonably well-crafted popcorn flick. Outside of this, the returns aren't quite enough to justify the ticket price for anyone not just looking for something the whole family (save, perhaps, kids frightened by scary monsters) can have a passable time with. There's mystery in the telling, and a few surprises, but where is the suspense? Where is the craziness? Where are the memorable laughs? Where is the emotional weight to any of the detrimental effects to family and community alike? It's also too mainstream, given the eerie creatures and other-worldly dimensions -- perhaps a bit of high camp or ironic quirk would have given the film the edge it needed. It's a good-looking film though, and likeable enough in a general sense, but given the budget, star power, and marketing, there are too many empty calories to feel fully satisfied.
©2011 Vince Leo