If nothing else, Jon Favreau’s new film Cowboys & Aliens makes good on what its title promises – there are plenty of both cowboys and aliens. Yet the film winds up a disappointment thanks to some uneven characterizations coupled with a confused, thinly-plotted narrative.
In the intriguing opening scene, we meet an enigmatic man played by Daniel Craig. He wakes up somewhere in the middle of the Old West with no memory, a stomach wound, a photograph, and a strange metal bracelet on his wrist. Our mysterious man makes his way to the nearest town, where he meets an equally mysterious woman, played by Olivia Wilde, who seems to know something about him.
From there, a slew of additional characters are introduced. In quick succession, we meet the town preacher Meacham (played by Clancy Brown), the saloon owner Doc and his wife Maria (Sam Rockwell and Ana De La Reguera), the sheriff John Taggart (Keith Carradine), the de facto ruler of the town Colonel Woodrow Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford) and his snivelling, cowardly son Percy (Paul Dano).
Percy is the engine of conflict early in the film, as his drunken behaviour prompts a reaction from Craig’s character. This reaction earns the unnamed cowboy the ire of the senior Dolarhyde and thanks from Doc and the other townsfolk. This is an interesting set up, and in another, simpler film the rest of the plot would’ve been dedicated to watching how this clash resolved itself.
But no, this is Cowboys & Aliens! So right in the middle of it all, aliens swoop in, lasso (how western!) some of these people up into their ships, then fly away, leaving everyone else to ponder exactly what just happened. Basically, the film establishes a bunch of interesting personal conflicts only to completely set them aside and turn the bulk of the movie into a rescue mission.
Here’s the problem: while the opening scenes of the film do a decent job of setting up who’s who, almost all the major characters are left behind unscathed. We barely know most of the abductees. As a result, the stakes don’t seem as high as they should. If some of the abducted characters had been better established, and their relationships with those left behind more fleshed out, the audience would’ve been more invested in seeing them rescued.
This is not, on its own, a game breaker. The movie still might’ve worked if there were something else to latch on to as the story proceeded. Like, say, a romance between Craig and Wilde. The writers (this movie has a bunch – a half dozen people received screenplay and/or story credits) try to work one in, but it comes across as perfunctory and predictable, compounding the problems. Favreau isn’t sure which story out of the several suggested by the script he most wants to tell. (Is this a story about a man trying to rediscover who he is? A love story? A siege movie?) As a result, he doesn’t do a particularly good job with any of them.
Speaking of the script, it feels surprisingly lazy once the opening scenes are out of the way. It goes without saying a film titled Cowboys & Aliens is going to have its share of improbabilities. That’s all well and good, but too often this movie writes itself into a corner, necessitating silly twists or creating plot holes to get its narrative back on the rails.
The script also does a poor job of paying off moments it’s been setting up all along. A character who has been struggling to learn to shoot for the entire film of course finds himself in the position of having to make a critical shot at a critical moment, but the scenario is presented all wrong. Rather than showing the shot from his perspective and maximizing the tension of the moment, it comes from off-screen. It’s a surprising moment rather than a suspenseful one. And to make matters worse, whether or not he makes the shot turns out to be completely irrelevant anyway, undercutting the drama even further.
It’s all a real shame, because the movie looks great. Favreau again teams with cinematographer Matthew Libatique (who also shot Iron Man and Iron Man 2, and was nominated for an Oscar for his work on Black Swan last year), and the two make the most of their New Mexico and California locations. The film has a tendency to look a bit dark as many of the middle chapters seem to take place after dusk or before dawn, but the desert locales looks great in daylight.
The ensemble cast makes the best of the material they have to work with. Craig is perfectly suited for the strong, silent type he plays here. The movie gives him several moments to display his impressive physicality, and he pulls them off with ease. Wilde isn’t given as much to do, but she holds her own. The two stars have decent chemistry, but again, their relationship feels very forced.
Sam Rockwell is underused, but continues to appear incapable of turning in a bad performance. Clancy Brown takes a break from the kinds of tough talking guards and drill sergeants he’s most known for playing to portray the kindly preacher. It’s a surprising and subtle turn. As mentioned, Paul Dano plays a character quite similar to his Eli Sunday character in There Will Be Blood. Much like with that film, the audience takes shameful joy in seeing harm befall him Cowboys & Aliens. Harrison Ford starts out looking like he’s going to be a fun, over-the-top villain, but his character does a disappointing 180 once the aliens arrive.
Even Harry Gregson-Williams’ score feels like a waste. It’s given prominent placement during the opening, where it sounds excellent. The mix of acoustic and electric perfectly captures the merging of western and sci-fi sensibilities. But throughout most of the remainder of the film, the music takes a backseat, lacking the necessary punch to make an impact amid all the explosions and gunfire.
In short, Cowboys & Aliens is an impressive-looking and well-acted production that feels hollow at its core. There’s an interesting story to be made from this premise, this just isn’t it.