Truth in advertising: Jon Favreau’s Cowboys & Aliens does, indeed, feature both cowboys and aliens. Only problem: it doesn’t seem to know what to do with either of them. Too silly to take seriously, and too serious to be any fun, the film is surprisingly dull despite the title and genre mashup elements, and turns into a real drag long before the rousing action climax has a chance to save it.
Cowboys starts out as a straight Western, with all the familiar archetypes: the grizzled Sheriff, the local Priest, the bespectacled saloon owner and his half-breed wife, the wealthy cattle baron and his spoiled son. There’s even the Man with No Name in Daniel Craig’s character, who wakes up in the middle of the desert with a convenient case of amnesia and an otherworldly bracelet on his wrist.
Craig, we soon learn, is Jake Lonergan, another archetype: the train-robbing outlaw with a bounty on his head. The Sheriff (Keith Carradine) packs up Lonergan with the baron’s son (Paul Dano), who haven’t exactly been on the best of terms, and fixes to send them up to Santa Fe. But wouldn’t you know it, that’s just when the baron himself, Woodrow Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford), comes riding into town with a posse demanding the release of his kid – and hey, isn’t that the guy who just robbed my stagecoach?
These early scenes are promising. They set up, you know, human conflict, and characters, and story strands that we expect to be resolved. But it’s at this point that the script (credited to six writers, not including the source comic that the film is based on) realizes the full potential of its title, and introduces an alien assault that kidnaps half the town and leaves the survivors dazed and confused.
Effectively, this “resolves” the human conflict set up during the previous half hour, and forces the remaining characters to bind together against a greater enemy. This happens twice more during the film, once with a gang of outlaws, and then again with a tribe of Native Americans. Conflict involving real characters? Bam! Alien attack. Crisis averted, now let’s all go shoot some CGI monsters.
As the survivors, including Lonergan, Dolarhyde, Doc (Sam Rockwell), Elle (Olivia Wilde), and young Emmett (The Last Airbender’s Noah Ringer), team up to track down the alien menace and rescue their captives, Cowboys & Aliens morphs into something akin to John Ford’s The Searchers, with aliens replacing Indians as chief villains. Here, of course, the Native Americans are a wise, spiritual tribe who bravely assist the Cowboys in their time of need.
The Searchers, like most Westerns before it, was often called out for racism in its portrayal of Native Americans as brutal savages. I doubt many will decry the portrayal of the aliens in Cowboys & Aliens as a similar misdeed.
But maybe they should. I’m not suggesting the alien creatures need to be fully-dimensional characters, as they were in District 9. But brutal savages would be an improvement: the alien creatures here, lacking explanation, or understanding, or motive, or soul, are just so repulsively boring. In this film and other CGI-fests like it, they represent the most uninteresting characters ever to grace the screen.
Not that the human characters suffer a better fate. Cowboys features an impressive cast but gives them all precious little to do; Craig has rarely been this bland as an action hero, and Wilde, the only member of the cast asked to display emotion, comes off as laughably inappropriate (it’s not her fault – it’s the way the character is written). It’s great to see Ford back in the acting saddle, but the film does him no favors; his gruff turn in Morning Glory was far more effective.
Director Favreau had previously only met with success (sez me) in Iron Man and Iron Man 2, and Made, Elf, and Zathura before that. Those films each had something that Cowboys & Aliens is sorely lacking: a sense of humor, and to go with that, a sense of fun. Most films about cowboys or aliens don’t take themselves half as seriously as this one.
But there’s so many big names attached to this one (Steven Spielberg, Ron Howard, and Brian Grazer among the producers), it’s hard not to find something to like. The cinematography (Matthew Libatique) and the music (Harry Gregson-Williams) are especially effective, and it’s great to see the Western genre represented on the big screen, at least when the film is still interested in being a Western. But while Cowboys & Aliens may deliver what the title promises, it does so in the most unimaginative way possible.