Cast: Daniel Craig, Harrison Ford, Olivia Wilde, Sam Rockwell, Adam Beach, Paul Dano ~ Writers: Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman, Damon Lindelof, Mark Fergus, Hawk Ostby ~ Director: Jon Favreau
Reviewer: Jehan Ranasinghe (aka @Maustallica)
The Low-Down: It may have an attention-grabbing concept and a star-studded cast and crew, but summer blockbuster hopeful Cowboys & Aliens has to go down as a major damp squib, stymied by huge tonal misjudgements, a lack of purpose and a shocking paucity of actual fun.
What’s it About?: In 1873, brooding gunslinger Jake Lonergan (Daniel Craig) awakens in the middle of the Arizona desert with no memory, strange injuries and a mysterious metal band shackled around his wrist. Journeying to the local settlement of Absolution in search of help, the stranger learns that he’s a wanted fugitive, falling foul of local law enforcement and the ruthless cattle baron Colonel Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford). But all of these problems are soon to become academic when otherwordly lights appear in the sky, and Absolution comes under attack from extraterrestrial forces – ones which may hold the key to Lonergan’s forgotten past…
The Story: You’ve got to give the makers of Cowboys & Aliens this, at least: it’s a bloody good title. It’s commonly said that you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but we all do it anyhow, so it helps if your cover has a name on it that’s as immediately and concisely communicative as this one. “Cowboys & Aliens” – a neat and playful subversion of the age-old cowboys and Indians trope, and a title that’s pregnant with the promise of two iconic fictional worlds meeting in a pulpy collision. More elaborately conceived movies, such as Inception and Green Lantern, have required four or five trailers to explain what they’re actually about, or why we should care: Cowboys & Aliens does it with three words.
Unfortunately, that’s about where the good omens for director John Favreau’s movie end. Certainly, that title – taken from a graphic novel by Scott Mitchell Rosenberg, which was only at the conceptual stage when the movie began development – created some decent initial buzz around the project, but despite an extensive marketing campaign, the film has underperformed thus far both in the US and internationally, at least relative to its budget and blockbuster aspirations. Undoubtedly, this will lead to assessment of the way the film has been sold, the bankability of its leading players, or the commercial viability of its chosen genre(s), but the explanation may be a lot simpler than that: essentially, Cowboys & Aliens just isn’t a particularly good film, squandering the highest of high concepts in what turns out to be a bland and largely joyless experience.
Certainly, you don’t get the impression that the failure of this movie is down to a lack of trying, at least from an investment perspective. An absurd number of studios – including heavyweights like DreamWorks, Paramount and Universal – have thrown money at Cowboys & Aliens, allowing an almost comical embarrassment of creative talent to be corralled together. In front of the camera are acclaimed stars Daniel Craig, Harrison Ford and Olivia Wilde; behind it is well-liked Iron Man helmer Favreau, shooting from a script credited to two of Hollywood’s most in-vogue writing duos (Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, Mark Fergus and Hawk Ostby), plus Lost’s Damon Lindelof; meanwhile, backers and producers include the likes of Ron Howard, Brian Grazer and Steven Spielberg. Add into the mix a reported budget of $163 million, and you get the impression that the makers of Cowboys & Aliens took this project very seriously indeed.
Ironically, it’s seriousness that proves to be this film’s most prominent undoing. The filmmakers have gone on record as saying they wanted to avoid taking an overtly broad and jokey approach to this material, which is an understandable and potentially sensible decision; however, there’s a difference between avoiding flippancy and avoiding levity altogether, which is the approach Favreau and co appear to have bafflingly settled on. What results is a handsomely-mounted, competently made but staggeringly solemn experience, which resists almost every invitation to have any fun with its concept whatsoever. Characterisation is limited to a few variations on “scowling”, the visual palette is dark and muddied, and the world of the film is generally a cold, dour and dreary place to be.
This approach hardly plays to the strengths of the director, who was surely hired on the back of his brash, boisterous and jovial Iron Man films; it certainly doesn’t work in favour of the material, which was surely crying out for a more playful treatment than this. Part of the fun of a typical mash-up is watching the well-defined conventions and tropes of two different genres colliding and feeding off each other; Cowboys & Aliens takes Western and sci-fi elements and grinds them up into a consistent but utterly flavourless grey mush. This would be more forgivable if the film had gained in gravitas what it lost in humour, but that can’t really be argued as being the case either, as none of the constituent parts are sufficiently developed enough to be of much interest without the neutered novelty of the mash-up framework. Cliché-shackled characters, unmemorable aliens, pedestrian mystery elements and curiously underplayed twists wouldn’t really be anyone’s idea of good building blocks for a light, frothy film; they certainly don’t pass muster in a movie that fancies itself as a brooding drama.
In this kind of unfertile territory, the film’s starry cast comes across less like an asset and more as a crippling waste of resources. Craig probably comes out of it best with a typically intense performance as amnesiac protagonist Lonergan, but the material barely tests him as an actor; still, he fares better than Ford, who was probably hoping this film would restore his movie star status beyond Indiana Jones, but who ultimately fails to bring any real interest to Dolarhyde, a half-baked semi-adversarial role that feels like a leftover from a previous draft. Wilde continues to content herself with turning up and looking striking in another sorely underwritten female blockbuster role (see also: Tron Legacy); meanwhile, vastly overqualified supporting cast members such as Sam Rockwell, Paul Dano and Clancy Brown tussle for scraps on the periphery, making no impression. It says a lot that the cast member who makes the biggest impression is the one who isn’t there: namely Robert Downey Jr, who was originally cast in Craig’s role and would have made an infinitely more interesting foil for Ford (rather than the sour-faced Craig/Ford pairing we get here), as well as adding some much-needed lightness, spark and purpose to proceedings.
In the final analysis, it’s a sense of any actual function that’s the quality that Cowboys & Aliens most demonstrably fails to provide. It’s an uninteresting, middling film that simply sits there, inert, failing to engage any particular audience to any measurable degree; not a big or spectacular enough a disaster to derail the careers of anyone involved, but never doing anything to warrant a place as anything other than a minor, forgettable footnote on a few CVs. For all its potential promise, all Cowboys & Aliens really achieves is showing how easy it is topple off a high concept and fall flat on your face.
The Verdict: Failing to capitalise on the pulpy promise of its title, Cowboys & Aliens is a dreary slog that squanders the talent and money at its disposal, and makes the spectacle of 19th-century outlaws fighting frog-men from outer space seem dry and dull. And I can’t think of anything more damning than that.