Cowboys & Aliens
Directed by: Jon Favreau
Written by: Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman, Damon Lindelof, Mark Fergus, & Hawk Ostby (screenplay), Scott Mitchell Rosenberg (comic)
Starring: Daniel Craig, Harrison Ford, Olivia Wilde, and Sam Rockwell
You can almost see the studio meeting that birthed this movie. I’m sure it went something likes this:
“What’s the title?”
“Cowboys & Aliens.”
“We’ll sell the title, then. It’ll be like Snakes on a Plane! Who’s directing?”
“We’d like to get the guy from Iron Man on board. Also, we want Harrison Ford to star.”
“Great, looks like you’ve thought of everything! Here’s $100 million.”
Cowboys & Aliens is the very definition of mindless summer entertainment. Its selling points are its title, which promises to deliver grandiose thrills by melding two distinct genres, and Harrison Ford. (He brings nothing to the table, but that’s nothing new.) It could’ve been a fun kind of awful watching cowboys wrangle aliens like cattle, but it shouldn’t have been this boring.
Director Jon Favreau brings an admirable level of visual professionalism to these proceedings, but the script is so sporadic that bringing any kind of consistency to it would’ve been impossible. This probably has something to do with the five different screenwriters; some tried to write a parody, others were writing a straightfaced film. There are scenes that lean so heavily on Western movie cliches that if they were in one without aliens this movie would’ve been a catastrophe. The Coen Brothers have a keen ear for insightful, brilliant dialogue in this genre. The people who wrote this do not.
For the first 30 minutes of the movie, aliens are only hinted at. Jake Lonergan (Daniel Craig) wakes up with a mysterious bracelet grafted to his arm and no memory of how he got wounded and thrown in the middle of the desert with no shoes. He dispatches some bandits who try to rob him, steals a horse and heads off. He lands in the town of Absolution, where he picks more fights and then lands in jail because there’s a $1000 bounty on his head he didn’t know about.
This part of the movie will test your patience. The characters exchange awful dialogue despite their credentials. Craig, Paul Dano and Sam Rockwell are all terrific performers who are caught in a movie they probably thought would be cool. You can almost hear them sigh after they deliver some of their lines.
Favreau probably let out a few sighs of his own behind the camera, though he serves as executive producer with Steven Spielberg. It’s surprising that these two talented people are behind a movie that has such a disdain for its audience, or at least Favreau (Transformers is burned into Spielberg’s resume).
Once all the characters are introduced and then placed in the same setting, Favreau can finally have some fun with a full-on alien assault. They encroach on the night skyline, blazes of light that draw nearer. As they lay waste to the town and abduct people with long ropes that shoot down and entangle them like aerial lassos, the movie temporarily finds its footing.
From this point on, it becomes a typical Western rescue mission. Lonergan figures out his past, Ford’s Woodrow Dolarhyde gets in touch with his humanity, and a girl (Olivia Wilde) rides along mostly to be rescued and offer a missing narrative puzzle piece. Native Americans surface at one point, and a bitter culture clash inevitably does too. With how much they aid the cowboys in combat, they deserve a spot in the title. Something tells me “Cowboys, Indians, & Aliens” wouldn’t sell as well, though.
Marketing is key to a movie like this because it is not a sequel, though with its recycled plot and lack of effort it could’ve fooled me. Cowboys & Aliens had a reported advertising budget of $30 million, and a total budget of $100 million. Most of it clearly went toward special effects, because whenever the aliens fly overhead and assault the cowboys, the movie is somewhat engaging. The characters ruin it whenever they open their mouths.