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Review: "Cowboys and Aliens" discards its fun title in favor of an excruciating experience
Film Rating: D+
There are multiple films warring for supremacy inside of Cowboys and Aliens, and while all of them have the potential to be satisfying interpretations of the wacky title on their own, together they make a film that is loud, soulless, and above all, stupid. Insultingly, incoherently stupid.
If one pays attention to the opening credits, it may not come as much of a surprise; there are five credited writers with a screenplay credit, two of which share a story credit with another man whose name isn’t on the script, and that’s before we reach the author of the graphic novel that provides the source material. As such, the script appropriately feels like it’s been haphazardly cobbled together from multiple, drastically different drafts, all thrown inside a blender and inexplicably put in front of the cameras. The results are not pretty.
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Since the script credit is arranged into three groups, two pairs and one individual, let’s limit the discussion to three competing concepts: the first is a character-driven piece intent on using the sci-fi threat as a way for the audience to learn about these characters, and for those in the story to work out their own flaws as they battle the aliens. The second is a bafflingly complex riff on the idea of cowboys fighting aliens, a dark and brooding piece that aims to make a thick, impenetrable mystery out of the alien-invader conflict. Finally, there is a take on the story that simply desires to honor the absurdity of the film’s title by having as much ridiculous fun as possible.
Now, I don’t think any one of these concepts is inherently a bad idea, although the third version seems like the most sensible route to take. The title Cowboys & Aliens is so wonderfully broad that a writer could conceivably go in one of many viable directions. Combining three or more of these directions into one story is where things get messy. The mystery aspect is so convoluted and time-consuming that it crushes any chance the script has of giving the talented cast real characters to play, and as such, every single character moment rings laughably false. Even if the mystery didn’t make developing the characters an automatically futile process, the time spent trying to get us to like these people or care about their relationships takes away from time the mystery needs to develop organically. Meanwhile, the desire to simply have fun constantly undermines the other two thirds of the story. If the film was just played for laughs or grins, it would be easy to smile when we learn that the alien came to earth to mine our Gold; yet since there’s a dark and brooding cloud of mystery hanging over the film begging to be taken seriously, this revelation results in a face-palm by the viewer and a mad desire to storm out of the theatre.
And all this before I even mention the god-awful dialogue or inept pacing.
It’s hard to blame director Jon Favreau or anyone else lacking a writing credit for the failings of Cowboys & Aliens, because every major beef I have with the movie stems from the script. It’s an extremely well-made film, and the actors do an admirable job making the most of a very bad situation. But the script lets all these hard-working people down so massively, it’s impossible not to shake one’s head in disbelief. The story simply doesn’t work, the characters are all paper thin or unimportant, the villains have no discernible motives (or intelligence, for that matter), and the lack of tonal or narrative coherency kills any chance the film has to capitalize on the fun promised by the title. It’s all so inconsistent that every choice made by the writers, every line of dialogue spoken by the characters, and every action taken by the villains comes across as idiotic.
The movie doesn’t actually start out that bad. In the very first shot, Daniel Craig’s character, Jake Lonergan, wakes up in the middle of the desert with a strange device on his wrist, a bloody wound in his gut, and no memories whatsoever. That’s a great way to start a Western, made even better by the fierce ass-kicking Lonergan delivers to a group of thugs that try to accost him. He makes his way into town, where he performs some more cheer-worthy whoop-ass, before learning that he’s a wanted criminal (not that this will have any significance later on, except as part of a half-baked ‘redemption’ arc for the character that is woefully undercooked). Harrison Ford’s character, Dolarhyde (I will admit, the names in this film are awesome), was robbed by Lonergan, and he’s looking to settle the debt. Before he can, though, the town is attacked by - you guessed it - aliens, who kidnap a large group of townsfolk. All hope seems lost, but during the fray, Lonergan discovers that the device on his wrist is a weapon effective in bringing the extra-terrestrials down. Thus, Lonergan, Dolarhyde, and a small group of companions set out to rescue their friends and family from the aliens.
It’s not a bad way to start the movie, and I will say this for Universal Pictures: they’ve done an excellent job marketing this one. The trailers give almost nothing away - even my description above reveals more details than the promos - and it’s nice to go into a big summer movie cold. Most trailers these days seem intent on spoiling every last bit of the plot, but from the opening moments on, Cowboys & Aliens is full of surprises. They aren’t necessarily pleasant surprises, and the amount of cliches grows exponentially as the film chugs along, but I have to hand it to the marketing department - they’ve come up with a way to get people into the theater without ruining the movie in advance.
After all, the film ruins itself just fine on its own. Once Lonergan and Dolarhyde set out with their posse, a tedious formula is quickly established: there’s an alien attack, Lonergan fights them off, and the cowboys spend what feels like a very long time on boring exposition. When we aren’t witnessing a ham-handed or forced ‘bonding’ moment between the characters, we’re listening to Olivia Wilde’s character explain the story in hushed tones, or watching Craig have flashbacks to his past. Then it’s back to a battle, which isn’t always fought with aliens, oddly enough, but also with Lonergan’s old gang or a group of Indians. Then more exposition or ‘bonding.‘ Then action. Lonergan does something badass, action’s over, now time for more story. It’s sort of like a video game - cutscene, gameplay, cutscene, gameplay, etc. - except far less engaging.
It continues like this right to the bitter end, with the character moments becoming increasingly frustrating and unearned, and the action beats decreasingly exciting or interesting. It doesn’t help that these aliens are some of the worst screen villains I’ve ever seen; I’ve already discussed how stupid their plan to mine gold comes across, but even though it’s ridiculous, it is a legitimate motive. Unless I dozed off somewhere in the middle, which is entirely possible, I don’t believe we ever learn why they abduct humans. Even if they did have a reason, wouldn’t leaving the humans alone allow the aliens to mine their gold in peace without taking any risks? Oh well. I just assume the aliens lack any sort of intelligence, as the number of stupid or contrived things they do - especially involving their treatment of Lonergan in one particular scene - is truly baffling. The aliens also look unimaginatively silly, something that would be fitting in a lighter, less dense version of this story, but an element that stands out as a glaring flaw in a film that asks to be taken seriously.
That’s not to say the effects work is shoddy - it’s actually top-notch. Jon Favreau has grown as a director, visually at least, with each film he’s made, and Cowboys and Aliens is no exception. It looks great, and that’s not just because the camera is focused on beautiful locales. The cinematography is truly impressive, and Favreau has a terrific handle on seamlessly integrating FX work into realistic locations, a trait he also showed off in the Iron Man films. But Favreau also proved in Iron Man that he’s not a great action director, and while Cowboys is a bit better in that department, I still think Favreau struggles to stage a particularly effective set-piece. The first bit of meyhem is great, but it’s all downhill from there as Favreau’s action becomes increasingly rote and inert. Even the music seems to get bored as the film goes along; during the first hour, composer Harry Gregson-Williams steps outside his dull comfort zone to deliver a rousing Western score, but he quickly retreats back into his bubble, closing out the movie with a series of uninspired, generic ‘summer action’ compositions.
The cast really do give it their all, but not one performance winds up ringing true. Daniel Craig fares best - his rugged look and demeanor make him a perfect Western hero - and if anything other than the script undermines the performance, it’s his accent. Craig has a hard time disguising his British roots here, and one could make an excellent drinking game by taking a shot every time he changes accents (although you might get pretty hammered). Sadly, there’s no real reason for Harrison Ford’s character to exist - he adds nothing to the story nor, despite Ford’s enthusiasm, to the film - and while I usually embrace any excuse to see Ford back on the big screen, I just wish it was in a good movie.
Olivia Wilde is a genuinely talented actress, but her character, Ella, is completely baffling. She’s part of a twist that adds nothing to the film besides conveniently dolling out some exposition, and before that, all she’s asked to do is stare intently at Daniel Craig and speak ominously in hushed tones. She tries, she really does, but not even the best of actresses could make this character work. There are a million other characters, all played by performers I respect and enjoy, but none of them are ever developed to the point where they feel like real people worth investing time in. It doesn’t help that the film’s idea of a ‘character arc’ is to introduce a bunch of people with problems at the beginning, allow half of them to get kidnapped while the other half go searching, and then to magically absolve the characters of all flaws or interpersonal quibbles once they are rescued. It’s maddening, to say the least.
I suspect many will have a similar reaction. After hearing a title as delightfully ridiculous as Cowboys & Aliens thrown around all summer, it’s hard not to feel betrayed by the lack of fun found in the finished product. In the end, though, I suppose the title is accurate for the film delivered. There are cowboys. There are aliens. No promises are made or kept about having strong or likable characters, interesting or involving stakes, or narrative coherency, not to mention any hints of regard for the audience’s intellect.
But there are cowboys, and there are aliens. So there’s that.