The script for “Cowboys and Aliens” was written by six very talented individuals, which both answers some questions and poses others. It explains why the final film feels so messy and haphazard, yet poses the thought — with people whose screen credits include intelligent yet thrilling blockbuster fare as the first “Iron Man”, “Star Trek”, “Children of Men” and the television show “Lost” — why is there a complete lack of originality or memorability to the proceedings?
The fact that “Cowboys and Aliens” sports such a ridiculous title yet lacks any personality is perplexing. But then again, so is a lot about the Jon Favreau-directed genre hybrid. Such as why there’s a near-total lack of action with said aliens until the last 20 minutes, and why with such a strong cast, the characters we spend the other 100 minutes with are such a bore.
Headliners include Daniel Craig, known to most as the James Bond of late. He leads along with Harrison Ford, who really should be getting better scripts of late than he has. Talented supporting players vary from the incredibly talented Paul Dano to the incredibly attractive Olivia Wilde. All of them have varying strengths and qualities as actors, a common trait of which that none are displayed here.
Craig is Jake, a criminal who wakes up in the middle of New Mexico desert with an oddly modern bracelet and no recollection of who he is. See, it’s 1875, and when Jake stumbles into a nearby town, he’s promptly beaten and jailed. But that changes when – try and predict this – aliens descend on the town, snatching up half the population and inspiring the other half to fight them back.
Reading that summary, you’d think it to be a straight-up action spectacle, a summary both false and a nagging reminder of what could have been. Instead, the movie is an extended road movie in which the group of characters follow the trail of their alien invaders.
Director Favreau spends the middle 45 minutes focusing on interplay between characters, an idea not bad considering a common trope of the Western genre is developing an eclectic bunch of people and letting them all hang loose and banter. Problem is, there is not a single character in this film that stands out or gives any significant semblance of personality or life. This renders their dialogue together almost completely redundant, meaning that at least 45 minutes of this film will bore you terribly. These are the same writers that fed Robert Downey, Jr. such biting, witty dialogue three years ago in “Iron Man”?
If there’s an element Favreau truly did nail, it’s the look that a Western carries. Producer Steven Spielberg sat Favreau down prior the film and showed him vintage Westerns to try and evoke — “Stagecoach” and “My Darling Clementine” included — and even if the soul of films such as those is gone, the classical yet rustic visuals are extremely well replicated. Cinematographer Matthew Libatique, hot off the intense, voyeuristic camerawork of “Black Swan”, deserves major props come awards season.
Given the monster budget “Cowboys and Aliens” carries, the sets and costumes are, predictably, all very impressive. I did dig a lot of the turns the plot took, such as the darker side of Jake’s past, and the inclusion of Indian tribes. One wonders why, given the ridiculousness of the title “Cowboys and Aliens”, they didn’t just make it “Cowboys and Aliens and Indians”. Then again, it’s not exactly like they did anything worthwhile with the original title. So often, I criticize or object to films because they’re too stupid. Here, I criticize “Cowboys and Aliens” because it never cuts loose. In other words, it’s not stupid enough. D+