Movie Review: How The West Was Yawn

It has cowboys. It has aliens. It does exactly what is says on the tin. Unfortunately, it rarely does anything more than that. (Results not typical; your results may vary.)

Film: Cowboys & Aliens
Starring: Daniel Craig, Harrison Ford, Olivia Wilde, Sam Rockwell
Written by: Mark Fergus and Hawk Ostby; Damon Lindelof, Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci; probably Your Mother
Directed by: Jon Favreau
Genre: Western, science-fiction, action
Rating: 5 out of 10 / C




In 1873 Arizona, Jake Lonergan (Daniel Craig) awakes in the middle of nowhere with no memory of who he is, how he got there, or why a strange metal shackle is on his wrist. He wanders into the town of Absolution, where nobody there seems to like or trust him very much except the mysterious Ella (Olivia Wilde). It turns out that Jake is a notorious criminal wanted by the law, and just when iron-fisted cattle baron Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford) comes to collect him, alien ships appear, decimating the town and kidnapping most of the inhabitants. Dolarhyde and Jake must join forces if they want to stop the alien invaders and rescue their kinfolk.

Spoiler alert! There are cowboys! And also aliens!

The cinematic western seems to be an easy genre to mash-up with just about anything else, since just about everything else has already been combined with it in some way: science fiction (Firefly/Serenity), samurai epics (Sukiyaki Western Django), meta-textual satire on film in general (Blazing Saddles) and even those $1.95 romance novels that your Aunt Barbara thinks are so lovely (Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman). Pairing a classic western to a classic alien invasion story seems like a natural fit in many ways. Both genres are reliant on a specific, collective mythology with overlapping archetypes and narrative tricks, and both are primarily concerned with the defeat of the Enroaching Other. However, Cowboys & Aliens is never more than the sum of its parts: there is no “you got your chocolate in my peanut butter” moment, just a collection of random tropes thrown together.

The film languished in development hell for years, so long in fact that creator Scott Mitchell Rosenberg of Malibu Comics released a graphic novel of his original pitch concept in the interim. The film gained and lost writers over the years in a kind of constant yo-yo diet of words, and the result of that is clear on screen. With five credited writers, only a few of which actually worked together at the same time, the screenplay is a jumble of cliches and aphorisms. While the bluntness of the lines is sometimes refreshing, the lack of nuance or depth eventually numbs the viewer into almost ignoring the words altogether, forcing attention solely onto the visuals.

It was a manly time, when manly men did manly things.

Jon Favreau seemed like a great choice to direct a film of this nature after making the Iron Man films both creative and financial blockbusters. However, his direction is rarely more than adequate here, and is often best described as anonymous. The action scenes contain little of the giddy thrill of either Iron Man film, and the characters rarely feel like more than a handful of stage directions: Dolarhyde is grizzled; Ella is mysterious, etc. Favreau has aimed the film in a much more serious direction than the Iron Man franchise, and it doesn’t always seem like it was the wise choice, as the film often feels too weighed down to be the escapist thrill ride it wants to be.

The cast doesn’t hurt the film in any way, but in most cases it also doesn’t help elevate it, either. Daniel Craig is a good choice for the lead: he has the swagger and stare of a Man With No Name down pretty well, even if the accent constantly eludes him. His chiseled, slightly worn face practically begs to be in a western, and the man looks good in chaps, something the film seems to constantly remind us of. By the half-way point you’ll be ready to get down on your knees and sing “Dear sweet prairie dog Jeebus in heaven, but Daniel Craig has a nice butt.” (Fun fact: I hear that’s the literal translation of the film’s title in Japan)

Say…who’s the new guy? Nice chaps.

Harrison Ford doesn’t come off nearly as well. Ford seems resolutely uninterested in everything around him, and he makes every line of Dolarhyde’s dialogue seem like it’s being spit out in-between chewing pieces of raw meat. Granted, that’s part of the character, but it takes quite a while until the character meshes with Ford’s cinematic persona in a natural way. Still, there’s nothing nearly as embarrassing here as in the last Indiana Jones film. Olivia Wilde fills her role as Lead Female well. She has enough personality to make Ella interesting, even if it’s clear from her first appearance that the character is more than she seems, if only because she’s so much cleaner than everybody else in the film. She brought the same laid-back charm to Tron: Legacy, although she’s given much less to do here. Of the supporting cast, the best players are Sam Rockwell as bartender Doc and Clancy Brown as the town preacher. Both men have character in spades, almost as if they stole it at gunpoint from everybody else in the film during a daring stagecoach hold-up.

Cowboys & Aliens eventually becomes a victim of its own title. Seeing that title on a movie poster featuring both gunslingers AND alien invaders seems to instantly promise campy fun and action aplenty. However, like similar films with wacky titles and outrageous/ridiculous concepts—Snakes On A Plane, Mega-Shark Vs. Giant Octopus, Atlas Shrugged—the movie takes itself far more seriously than it has any right to. That’s not to say it should be flippant or smug, but it shouldn’t be as ponderous or weighty as it is. It’s too self-important to be fun, it’s not nearly as deep as it thinks it is and is undermined by an endless string of conveniences and plot devices that don’t do the film any favors. While it’s cool to see Daniel Craig blasting aliens with a wrist-mounted laser, the presence of said blaster seems highly arbitrary, a cheap and easy way to level the playing field.

Bling with bang.

While it does play with the western plot of Others invading land and stealing resources, it never seems like more than lip service to the concept. The aliens are invading the planet to steal our gold, but what they use it for is never adequately explained: it appears to be used as fuel, but for what? The aliens kidnap people to study their weaknesses, but considering how easily a few scout ships can wipe out an entire town in seconds, that doesn’t make any sense. The aliens themselves aren’t very interesting, being little more than roaring monsters with laser scalpels, and the CGI isn’t always convincing. I found myself pining for the aliens in District 9, a film that did so much more with so much less.

The film isn’t horrible, just disappointing. A film that should be the ultimate summer thrill ride is instead just kind of boring. For all the genre elements it has in place—aliens, cowboys, James Bond, Indiana Jones, lasers, guns, Wilhelm screams, scenes ripped directly from the 2nd and 3rd Alien films—it seems to be missing the final piece that would bring it to life and make the parts into a whole. As a western mash-up, it lacks the spark and verve of fellow sci-fi hybrid Firefly (although it seems to have stolen its score), and it lacks the self-aware humor that made Takashi Miike’s Sukiyaki Western Django so interesting. The film is just kind of there, and for better or for worse, there’s really nothing more to it than that. It’s not a bad way to spend two hours on a Saturday afternoon, but in a summer of X-Men: First Class and Captain America, it’s certainly not the best.

JOHNNY M is a frequent FBOTU contributor and wants to play cowboys and aliens with you.<a href="; title="imageimage

%d bloggers like this: