'Cowboys & Aliens': Is as Obvious as It Sounds

Jon Favreau's adaptation of a little-known comic book was supposed to be a breath of genre-mixing fresh air in a summer dominated by sequels and superheroes.

Cowboys & Aliens

Director: Jon Favreau
Cast: Daniel Craig, Harrison Ford, Sam Rockwell, Olivia Wilde, Clancy Brown, Paul Dano
Distributor: Universal
Studio: Universal
Release date: 2011-12-06

The prospect of an extended version of Cowboys & Aliens is, in the wake of the film's disappointment, almost as tantalizing as the film itself was before that disappointing release in summer 2011. Jon Favreau's adaptation of a little-known comic book (indeed, a comic book that seems to have been released primarily to jump-start its prospects as a movie property) was supposed to be a breath of genre-mixing fresh air in a summer dominated by sequels and superheroes. Instead, its quality mirrored its box office performance: semi-solid, unspectacular, and a bit of a letdown.

The Blu-Ray includes an extended version, and a substantial one, at that: 15 extra minutes, as opposed to the additional 60 seconds that have graced, say, the extended cut of Fast Five. That seems like plenty of room for Favreau to fix any problems that may have been mandated by running-time or attention-span concerns.

On a second viewing, the first 40 or 50 minutes of Cowboys & Aliens still work as a pretty decent B-movie western, and indeed may be improved by the longer version that give even more screentime to its enjoyable archetypes. Daniel Craig cuts an iconic figure as a man with no name, with the clever addition that, as an abduction victim, he doesn't know his own name, either. Favreau introduces a crack supporting cast of character actors -- Sam Rockwell (against type as a nice, normal barkeep), Clancy Brown, Paul Dano -- and brings in Harrison Ford as a snarling villain, while hinting at otherworldly menace.

Up through the first full-scale alien attack on the town, Cowboys & Aliens feels like it's building to something. But when the characters round up a posse to go after the aliens -- just when things should be kicking into gear -- the movie sputters, failing to really pay off either its knowingly stock characters or its intentionally simple story. The last hour or so, at least, has its moments: Craig, Ford, and the rest are still engaging, and Favreau still composes clean, polished-looking shots mixing sci-fi and western imagery. But that's all there is to it: it's a pretty good western crossed with the kind of okay but muddled alien-invasion thriller you might expect from hacky screenwriting pair Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman.

Unfortunately, this sparseness of inspiration holds true for the Blu-Ray version, too. In the film's back half, even with some extra minutes as its disposal, it doesn't build on its sturdy set-up. In stark contrast with many summer movies, it's the action in Cowboys & Aliens that feels especially perfunctory, neither clever nor spectacular. What begins with great promise turns oddly rote, and the excised "character beats", as people in charge of engineering summer-blockbuster screenplays tend to call them, can't make up the difference.

The Blu-Ray includes a solo commentary from Favreau that explains why the two different cuts exist, but never quite gets at the movie's full potential. Favreau says he "appreciate[s] brevity" as an audience member, but likes character moments as a filmmaker, mentioning that, yes, if pressed, he prefers the extended version of the film. But it's all couched in Hollywood blather about wanting to appeal to the largest possible audience (an audience that executives presumably picture growing restless and irritable when characters have motivations, feelings, or relationships to one another) that sounds a bit like a capable filmmaker making company-like excuses.

Still, the longer cut doesn't, in the end, fix the movie's problems, so it's understandable that Favreau didn't fight to get it into theaters. Other sections of the commentary underline those basic flaws with decent intentions: Favreau obviously knows his genre tropes and touchstones, and isn't looking to make an opportunistic spoof. He mentions several logical points of intersection, such as the use of flashbacks in both westerns and alien-abduction stories. But the movie never really does anything with these intersections beyond simply displaying them; no cross-genre transcendence is achieved. Cowboys & Aliens does, indeed, proceed with admirable seriousness (as does Favreau's commentary -- bordering on self-seriousness). But this does not automatically make it good; it only makes it not terrible.

If there was behind-the-scenes strife that kept the movie from taking off into riskier or more satisfying realms, Favreau doesn't betray much information about it. He does make a vague allusion to script-cobbling when he mentions that Olivia Wilde's character -- a member of another alien race, disguised for most of the movie as a frontier woman -- was unformed during much of filming, and that Wilde didn't know the full nature of her character until later in the production. This seems especially strange given how clear this is in the final film, or even the trailer; to the movie's credit, the turn doesn't seem tossed-off or nonsensical (well, unless you really give it some thought). In fact, it seems pretty obvious, which sums up Cowboys & Aliens quite well: a lot of careful work going into material that remains exactly as obvious as it sounds.


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