Review: Cowboys & Aliens

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While watching Cowboys & Aliens I was reminded of the scene in Tim Burton’s Ed Wood when a producer of cheap drive-in fare hires Wood to direct a picture. Wood is told he can make any movie he wants, but the producer already has a title and a poster. Cowboys & Aliens started with a title and worked backwards, with no other reason than that someone thought the title was cool.

And I would agree, it is cool. The film tries to mesh two time-honored genres: the Western and science fiction, but it turns out they don’t go together well, not like peanut butter and chocolate. The idea is not new; there was a comic book series in the 1950s called “Space Western,” and this film was also based on a comic book. Of course, they may have gone together better with a director who shows some flair, but Jon Favreau has never shown that kind of dexterity, instead he is a manipulator of special effects; emotions and theme would seem to be beyond him.

As another critic pointed out, this is the second film this summer bearing the name and fingerprints of Steven Spielberg (Super 8 was the other) that might have been much better had he directed. Spielberg is only one name in a long list of producers, and there are enough screenwriters to field a soccer team. I think this film would have been much better if it were written by one person with a good imagination, rather than a team of guys settling for the lowest common denominator.

The film begins with Daniel Craig awakening in the desert. He has no memory of his name or how he got there, and he has a strange metal contraption secured around his wrist. Like Jason Bourne, though, he hasn’t forgotten his skills, and takes care of three hombres who try to capture him. He wanders into a generic Western town that is run by the local cattle baron (Harrison Ford), with a sheriff who tries to keep the peace (Keith Carradine), which is mostly upset by Ford’s half-wit son (Paul Dano). There’s also a mysterious woman (Olivia Wilde) who seems to have strolled in from the pages of Vogue, and has the whitest teeth this side of the Pecos.

All of a sudden this cliche is interrupted by another one, as the villagers are attacked by spaceships. Of course, back then people had no notion of space travel, so they are thought to be demons. They snatch up people using a lasso-like metal rope–it seems to me that beings that can perfect interstellar space travel could come up with better technology.

That’s a key problem with the film–how to have it so people who have nothing more than six-guns and bows and arrows (and a few sticks of dynamite) can defeat an alien race who can travel between galaxies. The script bends over backwards to make things work–I wondered why the aliens, if they were interested in kidnapping humans, didn’t go to a more populated place, like a city, but this is explained, if not completely satisfactorily.

In any event, former enemies, like Craig and Ford, team up with a band of outlaws and Apache Indians to defeat the aliens, glossing the thing with a forced feel-good sentiment. There is little character development–Craig is the taciturn loner who is doing this for the woman in his life, while Ford has a disastrously sappy subplot involving an Indian employee (Adam Beach) who looks up to him like a father. This film is not Ford’s shining moment. It just may be a career low.

I didn’t hate this film, though, mostly due to how it looked. The costumes and sets are rigorously detailed, and the photography by Matthew Libatique is lovely to behold. Coincidentally, I saw again his Black Swan just before this, and marveled at how he was able to handle two completely disparate environments to equally stunning effect.

When I was fourteen I would have loved this film, as it has the requisite action you would expect, there’s just not enough substance and intelligence to make it transcend the studio hacks’ fingerprints. For young boys (and old men) there’s also a completely gratuitous yet tasteful nude scene featuring Wilde.

My grade for Cowboys & Aliens: C

About Jackrabbit Slim

Location: Vegas, Baby! I’m much older than the other whippersnappers here, a baby boomer. I tend to be more snobbish about film, disdaining a lot of the multiplex fare for “cinema.” My favorite films: Woody Allen’s oeuvre (up until about 1990), The Godfather, The Graduate, A Hard Day’s Night, Pulp Fiction. Politics: Well, George McGovern was my political hero. I’m also a prickly atheist. Occupation: Poised to be an English teacher in Las Vegas. For many years I was an editor at Penthouse Magazine. My role on this blog seems to be writing lots of reviews and being the resident Oscar maven.

2 responses »

  1. I pretty much agree. They might have really had something here if anyone had at any time given the matter any thought. It’s not an inherently bad premise, and actually leaves a lot of room for imagination and creativity, but of course that just didn’t happen. The way that Wilde’s subplot unfolded was embarassing.

    Ford’s pretty bad, but I’m not sure it’s a career low. It’s more of an established baseline for him these days. If he was better in Firewall or Crystal Skull, I can’t say I’m sophisticated enough to tell the difference. And I didn’t even see Hollywood Homicide or Extraordinary Measures, but was he really better in those? I have my doubts. As I wrote way back in my KotCS review:

    He’s simply not an interesting actor any longer, as anyone who has seen Firewall could have perhaps predicted.

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