Cowboys & AliensReviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 07/29/11 00:00:00
Well, why not have a movie that features both cowboys and aliens? After all, in a pop culture firmament in which combining seemingly disparate elements into one has become all the rage for everything from music to chewing gum, the idea of fusing together the Western and the sci-fi spectacular into one giant cinematic Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup has a certain logic to it. After all, the two seemingly dissimilar genres share a lot of thematic concerns (you don’t think the cantina scene in “Star Wars” just came out of nowhere, do you?) and it is probably no coincidence that sci-fi movies began their box-office ascendancy just as the Western was fading from view. Besides, the hybrid isn’t even that fresh of an idea as anyone who recalls such epics as “The Phantom Empire” (a 1935 serial that tried to cash in on the popularity of “Buck Rogers” and “Flash Gordon” by having singing cowboy Gene Autry discovering a mysterious alien civilization living deep in the earth underneath his ranch) “The Valley of Gwangi” (a 1969 Ray Harryhausen epic in which a cowboy captures a Tyrannosaurus Rex and puts him in a Mexican circus with the expected dire results), “Westworld” (the 1973 Michael Crichton classic with Yul Brynner as a robot gunslinger hunting down Richard Benjamin after all the machines at an A.I.-driven amusement park go murderously hunky) or the more recent likes “Back to the Future III” or “Wild Wild West” (I presume no further explanation is necessary) can attest and I am sure that there have been other examples over the years that I am somehow overlooking for one reason or another. However, for this type of film to work, it needs to find a proper balance between the two genres and therein lies the central flaw of the would-be blockbuster “Cowboys & Aliens.” When it sticks solely to the sagebrush-related material, it is kind of fun in a breezy and unpretentious way that makes it feel like a straightforward Western and not a film about Westerns. Alas, once the stuff involving aliens and their corresponding whatnot comes into play, things get a whole lot less interesting and soon devolve into just another spectacle involving spaceships, icky monsters and things going boom and the fact that the heroes are wearing chaps and riding horses only serves to accentuate how terribly familiar everything else around them is.Set in 1873, the films opens with a man (Daniel Craig) waking up in the middle of the Arizona desert with no memory of who he is or how he got there, a photo of a beautiful but unknown woman and a strange metallic shackle clamped to his wrist. He eventually makes his way to the town of Absolution, a grim little place under the total dominance of embittered cattle baron and Civil War veteran Colonel Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford). No sooner does he arrive than he runs afoul of Dolarhyde’s jackass son Percy (Paul Dano) and the resulting dust-up lands the punk in jail and the stranger the grudging respect of the town--that is until the sheriff (Keith Carradine) discovers that the new guy may be Jake Lonergan, a criminal wanted for murder, arson, assault and, potentially worst of all, stealing gold from Dolarhyde. The sheriff is about to ship both Lonergan and Percy off to the big city for trial when Dolarhyde arrives and demands that both be released to him but before anything can get much further, the town is suddenly strafed from above by a group of mysterious ships that blow up half the buildings with their lasers and snatch a number of the locals up with their metallic talons, though Lonergan is able to bring one of the ship’s down with the device on his wrist. The next day, a group of townspeople, including a reluctant Lonergan, a determined Dolarhyde and a collection of characters including a bumbling barman (Sam Rockwell), a drunken preacher (Clancy Brown), an adorable little kid (Noah Ringer), Dolarhyde’s Mexican aide and translator (Adam Beach) and Ella (Olivia Wilde), a mysterious mega-babe who comes along for the ride in the hopes that she can help unlock the mystery of what happened to Lonergan and supply the “partial nudity” cited in the MPAA rating, go off in pursuit and gradually discover that what they are facing is Not Of This World. Dolarhyde, on the other hand, slowly begins to recall who he is, what happened to him and discovers he may hold the secret to defeating the invaders before they destroy Earth once and for all.
Yes, the premise of “Cowboys & Aliens” is appealing enough but for a film like this to really work and stand out against the other formulaic blockbusters out there, it needs more than just a premise to see it through--it requires a strong, clear and singular vision of what it wants to be. The trouble with “Cowboys & Aliens” is that it lacks just that singular vision and after a while, it begins to feel just as rote and generic as anything else out there. The film has been in development for more than 15 years--it was inspired by a proposed comic book idea that was pitched in 1997 but which wouldn’t be published until 2006--and it has gone through any number of screenwriters who have tried to come up with a premise that would embrace both the Old West and outer space. Perhaps inevitably, the story feels as if it were put together by committee and an exceptionally distracted one at that. The scenes often feel jammed together with little rhyme or reason, the story has no real flow and the whole thing is a mess of clashing tones that can never quite decide whether it wants to be a goofy movie or a movie with an admittedly goofy premise told with a straight face. The best scenes by far are the early ones that are purely oater in origin. Director Jon Favreau is clearly a fan of old Westerns and pays loving homage to the genre by including as many of the most common narrative tropes as he can think of, presumably on the basis that this may be the only time he ever gets millions of dollars to make anything remote resembling a Western and he is going to make the most of it. The fun lasts through the first attack on the town by the aliens, especially in regards to the locals who literally have no idea of what to make of what is going on, but after that, both the ingenuity and the energy start to lag as the film tries and fails to juggle its two genres together.
There are still a few nice moments here and there to be had-one of the best is a lovely bit in which Lonergan and Ella, who have been swooping through the air on the wing of one of the alien ships, jump back to Earth and take a moment to contemplate that they were just doing the seemingly unthinkable act of flying through the air--and some of the supporting performances from the likes of Clancy Brown and Sam Rockwell are colorful and amusing. That said. genuine inspiration is quickly replaced by yet another collection of blandly conceived action sequences, uninteresting heroes (while the gruffer-than-usual Ford is a little more entertaining than usual, the normally riveting Craig is a cipher by comparison and seems acutely uncomfortable with the proceedings at certain points) aliens that, once revealed, appear to be factory rejects from the place that made the Alien and the Predator and a series of surprise revelations that are almost too silly even for a project of this type. (Without going into too much detail, it turns out that the aliens have more in common with Ron Paul than one might expect.) The whole thing just degenerates into a mess and when it finally reaches its big climax with the cowboys and the monsters duking it out with the fate of the world in the balance, whatever kitschy charms the idea might have possessed has long since faded into the woodwork and replaced with nothing more than bland efficiency at most.As a result, while “Cowboys & Aliens” is a good deal better than the likes of such anonymous duds as “Transformers 3” or “Green Lantern,” it squanders its admittedly appealing premise in such a way so that viewers coming out of it feeling even more bummed out because it should have and could have been so much better. Who knows--maybe it will inspire someone out there to come up with the idea for a good screenplay involving cowboys and aliens and get it produced one day. (Heck, if push came to shove, I’d be perfectly willing to sacrifice the aliens and just go with the cowboys alone if need be.) If that were to occur, then perhaps “Cowboys & Aliens” could one day assume a part of film history for serving as the inadvertent inspiration for something truly entertaining. Until then, it is destined to go down as one of those near-misses with a concept so appealing in theory that you can’t wait to see it that then fumbles it so completely in the execution that you can’t wait for it to end.
|© Copyright HBS Entertainment, Inc.|