[29 July 2011]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
How do you screw this up? How do you take an intriguing bit of revisionist horse opera, fuse it to a rollicking alien invasion concept, and have both wind up worn out and dull? Well, if you’re Iron Man maverick Jon Favreau, you hire a cast that looks like it could use a sandwich (or three), force a five man screenplay on them, and then systematically find ways to make all ideas die a slow, painful death. Make no mistake about it, Cowboys & Aliens is not the worst movie of the Summer, just the most underwhelming. Instead of soaring to Spielbergian heights (someone from whom Favreau constantly cribs), it drowns in a dozen creativity-by-committee decisions. Mildly entertaining and maddening as Hell, it’s a perfect example of what’s wrong with the current crop of popcorn titles.
Jake Lonergan (Daniel Craig) is a man lost. After waking up in the wilderness, unable to remember who he is and with a strange metal object attached to his wrist, he is desperate to reconnect with reality. Arriving in the small town of Absolution, he is immediately confronted with a sheriff (Keith Carradine) with a warrant for his arrest and a smart-ass rancher’s son (Paul Dano) who insists upon dragging his Daddy’s good (?) name through the mud. Of course Colonel Woodrow Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford) is more than capable of causing his own territorial harms. He uses his power and position to always get his way. One night, the town in overtaken by objects in the sky, these illuminated “demons” dragging various members of the population off with them. Then, the thing on Lonergan’s arm activates, shooting one of the metal horrors down. Desperate to get back their people, Absolution gathers up a posse and goes out after these ‘things’, with our hero tagging along to help.
As frustrating as it is flat, Cowboys & Aliens proves that not every geek adored graphic novel needs to be translated to another medium. Sometimes, an idea can only sit comfortably in one format. Of course, once you read the synopsis of Scott Mitchell Rosenberg/Fred Van Lente/Andrew Foley’s comic creation, you’ll wonder where that version of the title went. Indeed, this take on C&A is unlike anything previously penned, a ridiculous hodgepodge of genre riffs ramrodded into something that’s supposed to satisfy. About the only thing the film gets right is the high tech vs. low brow level of humor that would arrive with such a clash of cultures. Everything else appears redundant and recycled. Indeed, when viewed against the source, this appears like a Wild West Close Encounters with a bit of Independence Day and six shooter Battle: Los Angeles thrown in for good measure.
Fame has obviously gone to Favreau’s head. Prior to this, he was a determined, hardworking director. His Made, Elf, and Zathura showed he could handle most material with ease. Iron Man extrapolated out that theory, providing the blueprint for the contemporary smarmy superhero movie. However, it appears that minute he tasted success, when Tony Stark and his metal doppelganger became the new benchmark for comic book creativity, Favreau fell apart. Iron Man 2 was a mess, and now we have this cobbled together nonsense. Sure, it looks good and plays like a proper piece of Summer entertainment, but if you peek beneath the splash and spectacle you’ll find a film unable to holds its center. Instead, it slip slides all over the map, leaving a trail of struggling sluggishness behind it.
This is the kind of movie where flashbacks arrive unexplained, advancing the narrative because there is no other way to do so. Characters aren’t introduced so much as slapped up on the screen and expected to resonate. When an action scene is necessary, Favreau fails to find the proper level of energy. Sometimes, the sequence just sits there. In other instances, it’s so hectic and hyperactive that you’d swear Michael Bay’s ADD-addled cousin was the Second AD. Of course, he gets no help from the rest of the company. Craig has slow burn smolder down to a discernible level of disinterest while Olivia Wilde, as a woman whose only identifiable personality trait is the ability to stare like a deer in the headlights at her co-stars, is a nonentity. Paul Dano is delightful, and then is carted off camera, and the usual reliable Sam Rockwell (as a tavern owner) and Clancy Brown (as a wise preacher) barely make a mark.
Only Ford seems fired up - at least, for the first half of the film. He’s a bad guy cattle baron and not afraid to show it. He has a seasoned snarl and the cinematic history to back up his fervor. Sadly, once he has to stand for himself and his family, he dribbles back into halting hero territory, and we grow bored. We’ve seen the man do this a dozen times, from Han Solo to Indiana Jones to Jack Ryan. We don’t need a grizzled Gabby Hayes version of his practiced persona. Luckily, Favreau doesn’t let him overstay his welcome. He’s too busy letting lame CG aliens stink things up.
Indeed, the creatures on display here are nominal entities, figments of a stilted CG experiment gone gamey. We never get a good glimpse of them, watch as they scamper around like apes, and then wonder why their three fingered arms are inside their chest (?!?). Instead of giving us a clear clash of the title, we get fleeting glances and far too many guttural grows (you know, because that’s how higher extraterrestrial intelligences communicate…). Other alien action films provide us with at least some sense of what the odds are. Here, Favreua and his collection of compensated scribes constantly tweak the rules in order to serve their storyline, not the other way around.
The result is a solid disappointment, a movie that’s been presold as an epic when it can barely break out of the genres it’s junking. Indeed, either thread, developed and delivered with authority would make for a better movie than this. We’ve had some really great Westerns as of late and there is always room for another marauding ET or two. Like the title itself, the concept of Cowboys & Aliens is slightly clever, slightly skewed. The resulting film, on the other hand, is a waste.