Cowboys & Aliens
Director : Jon Favreau
Screenplay : Roberto Orci & Alex Kurtzman & Damon Lindelof and Mark Fergus & Hawk Ostby (screen story by Mark Fergus & Hawk Ostby and Steve Oedekerk; based on the comic book created by Scott Mitchell Rosenberg)
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 2011
Stars : Daniel Craig (Jake Lonergan), Harrison Ford (Woodrow Dolarhyde), Abigail Spencer (Alice), Buck Taylor (Wes Claiborne), Olivia Wilde (Ella Swenson), Sam Rockwell (Doc), Matthew Taylor (Luke Claiborne), Cooper Taylor (Mose Claiborne), Clancy Brown (Meacham), Paul Dano (Percy Dolarhyde), Chris Browning (Jed Parker), Adam Beach (Nat Colorado), Ana de la Reguera (Maria), Noah Ringer (Emmett Taggart)
“There’s gold in them thar hills!,” and apparently it’s as attractive to giant, drooling aliens from outer space as it is to human prospectors. At least, that’s the premise of Cowboys & Aliens, a lumbering sci-fi/Western mash-up whose cheeky-sounding title is the most fun the film has to offer. While the presence of Steve Oedekerk (Ace Ventura, Bruce Almighty) in the rather voluminous list of screenwriters throwing ingredients into the stew would seem to suggest that this film perhaps started in a more comic vein, under the direction of Jon Favreau (Iron Man) it took a decidedly serious turn, trading in potential silliness for an aura of grave austerity that sometimes feels entirely at odds with images in which, well, cowboys and aliens share the same screen space.
The story begins as a pure Western, with Daniel Craig’s Jake Lonergan suddenly awakening in the middle of the Arizona desert with no memory of who he is, where he’s been, why he has a bleeding wound in his side, and why some strange metallic contraption is affixed to his left wrist. (Okay, maybe it’s not pure Western, but it’s close.) He immediately demonstrates his prowess by taking down three would-be bandits, stealing their clothes, guns, and a horse, and riding into a small, frontier town that is run by Colonel Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford), a cantankerous military man-turned-cattle baron whose idiotic son Percy (Paul Dano) is allowed to ride roughshod over everyone because they’re all terrified of his father. The townspeople soon learn that there are things far scarier than Harrison Ford acting cranky; to wit, the arrival of spider-like spacecraft that snatch the people with what appear to be silvery lassos and haul them off to who knows where. In order to get them back, Lonergan and Dolarhyde put together a rag-tag posse of survivots that includes Doc (Sam Rockwell), the bespectacled barkeep, and Ella Sweson (Olivia Wilde), a wide-eyed stranger who has her own set of secrets.
Given that title, one can’t expect much from Cowboys & Aliens in terms of originality except in relation to the mixing of the titular characters and their respective genres, which in hindsight doesn’t seem all that ridiculous. After all, why is that we think of alien invasions only taking place during modern times? It seems perfect plausible (at least within the realm of science fiction) that aliens would descend upon Earth just as readily in the 1870s as they would today, and arriving at a time when humans could only fight back with six-shooters, bows and arrows, and the occasional stick of dynamite certainly has its advantage (although it makes the film’s subplot about the aliens abducting people to study them for their weaknesses simply asinine). And, when Cowboys & Aliens is working, as in a lengthy battle near the middle of the film between Lonergan’s posse, a group of outlaws chasing them, and the alien spacecraft, it has a giddy sense of abandon that correlates with the best moments in Favreau’s Iron Man when Tony Stark is first feeling the exhilaration of flying.
Unfortunately, that sense does not pervade the entire film, often because it takes itself too seriously, thus bleeding it of the pulpy, B-movie fun its title suggests (Favreau makes the mistake of trying to recreate the traumatic blockbuster intensity of executive producer Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds). It also doesn’t help that the leads, despite their respective pop-cult standings as James Bond and Indiana Jones, aren’t terribly engaging, with Craig acting the Eastwood-style tough guy without the mythos and Ford just growling most of the time before having a final-act change of heart. The climactic battle, which splits its time between Dolarhyde and others fighting the insect-like aliens outside while Lonergan and Ella sneak into their ship to try to rescue people, bogs down into rote action that is briefly enlivened by some surprisingly grisly imagery, but otherwise remains undistinguished. Thus, while there is plenty of gold, there isn’t enough fun to be had in them thar hills.
Copyright ©2011 James Kendrick
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All images copyright © Universal Pictures and DreamWorks SKG