Ingredients for anticipated success: take a director, John Favreau, with a couple of smash hits and proven way of contouring good actors into flashy blockbuster fare to his credit; two generations of major league male movie star, represented by Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford; one fairly talented, drop-dead yowza starlet as required, here in the shape of Olivia Wilde; a battery of excellent character actors including Clancy Brown, Keith Carradine, Paul Dano, and Sam Rockwell; and a story that crossbreeds western and science-fiction tropes into a bizarre hootenanny of a steampunk action flick. What do you have? A wild, dizzying swashbuckler that mashes up some hugely divergent brands of pulp with a strong dose of Hollywood glam and provides a suitably ridiculous thrill-ride to rake in the dough? Well, no, not exactly. One of the year’s bigger disappointments both financially and aesthetically, Cowboys & Aliens isn’t exactly bad, but isn’t anywhere near as fun and inventive as it ought to be. Not terribly surprisingly, the film works best when sticking to the western side of the ledger, offering initially a free-range mash-up of Leone, Ford, Last Train From Gun Hill, Rio Bravo, Broken Lance, and a half-dozen others. It’s hard to get away from the feeling that the people who had to actually make the film, as opposed to the guys in suits who thought Cowboys & Aliens sounded cool, might have preferred to do the cowboy thing and let the aliens alone.
Craig plays a Man with No Memory, awakening in the middle of nowhere with a bleeding hole in his side and a strange metal gauntlet on one hand, with no recollection of how he got these, or even who he is. When a trio of obnoxious horsemen come upon him and immediately decide that he must be an escaped convict whom they can probably claim a reward for, the nameless stranger kicks their asses with silent, stunning aplomb, and moves on. He reaches a small town, which is only sustained by the trade of local cattle king Col. Woodrow Dolarhyde (Ford), who has an obnoxious, trigger-happy bully of a son, Percy (Dano), causing havoc in the vicinity, persecuting the milquetoast bartender Doc (Rockwell) in particular. The stranger, who is soon identified thanks to wanted posters as Jake Lonergan, a famous outlaw, receives aid from the religiose Meacham (Clancy Brown), and then kicks Percy in the scrotum to teach him manners. Percy, enraged, accidentally shoots and wounds a deputy, bringing down the wrath of the Sheriff, Taggart (Carradine). Dolarhyde, already in a rage after some of his cattle and ranch hands are mysteriously incinerated by fire from the sky, and first glimpsed about to draw and quarter the confused, drunk lone survivor, steams into town to demand his son back. A confrontation is however forestalled when strange flying machines descend on the town and snatch away locals, including Taggart, Percy, and Doc’s wife (Ana de la Reguera), and Jake’s strange bracelet comes to life, proving to be an energy weapon that fires in response to mental impulse. He picked it up sometime when he too was an alien captive, but how and when, and whether the story he may have killed a woman is true, remain mysteries to be slowly uncovered.
The film’s dusty, muted, brown and ochre-hued cinematography, by Matthew Libatique, evokes less the high Technicolor of ‘50s Westerns than the mud-and-blood style of the post-‘60s variety, but Cowboys & Aliens clearly reveals a working knowledge of genre classics. This isn’t the first time someone’s tried to mate the Western with sci-fi – my mind drifts back pleasantly to not just Back to the Future III (1990), but also to the charmingly nutty 1987 flick Timestalkers, in which Klaus Kinski was a futuristic assassin trying to pervert the future by posing as a gunslinger. Cowboys & Aliens doesn't wield anything like the same charm, and that’s because it never really allows itself the luxury of being properly nutty. Rather, it simply, lazily transfers some already simple, lazy sci-fi fare, like restaging the least convincing “revolt against the alien overlords” scenes in movie history, as provided by the likes of Stargate (1994). In the long final tussle, mysteriously, the alien invaders seem to have only brought one ray gun with them, and they prove resistant to bullets in some scenes, but in others can be brought down by spears and knives. Such dazzling, rampant ignorance of any realistic sense of physical danger and strategic craft in battle would have made guys like Raoul Walsh and John Ford curl up on the floor and cry with a bottle of JTS Brown. Tension between the various characters and their disparate world views are first shouted and then elided, and the finale sees reunions that ignore what we’ve given to understand about the way these people have related and behaved. Milking pathos out Dolarhyde losing “real” son Colorado (Adam Beach) and then being reunited with his biological brat Percy, who’s temporarily amnesiac and therefore momentarily tolerable, Favreau and his scriptwriters seem to have lost sight of any actual point other than hurried, contrived catharsis.
The trouble is an inability to tell the difference between quoting classic storylines and doing so with any wit. The story was technically based on a graphic novel by Scott Mitchell Rosenberg, but, rumour has it, actually only inspired by its cover. The screenplay proper is credited to no less than five writers, with notorious franchise hacks Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman amongst them. Whereas J.J. Abrams mostly transcended the limitations of the Orci-Kurtzman template with his 2009 Star Trek reboot, thanks to his solid grasp of story essentials, Favreau falls entirely prey to their usual derivative, relentlessly pubescent exposition. The first half-hour or so of the film retains sufficient integrity to be engaging in evoking the Western panoply. Craig has been waiting his whole life to play a leathery bad-ass gunslinger, whether he knows it or not, and perhaps so too has Ford, whose Dolarhyde clearly channels such figures as Charles Bickford’s Henry Terrill from The Big Country (1958). That initial integrity is however misleading, as the screenplay doesn’t actually set out to tell a story, but piles up plot elements and hopes they’ll cohere into a story at some point. We have Jake’s amnesiac distress and his eventual recollection of an awkward attempt to leave behind his outlaw past with lady love Alice (Abigail Spencer), doomed when they were captured by the aliens and
was killed in an
experiment by an alien Josef Mengele. We’ve got Dolarhyde trailing not only
Civil War trauma but anti-Indian feeling and filial problems, not only relating
to the disgraceful Percy, but also to the young Native American lad Nat, whom he raised and who is now his foreman, patronised, alienated, yet still yearning to be seen as Dolarhyde's loyal progeny. Alice
Later, as the posse of alien hunters forms, including Doc, who of course can’t shoot a gun but who will later deliver a crack bullet when needed, and Taggart’s grandson Emmett (Noah Ringer) as well as the more weathered hands, they encounter Jake’s ornery band of outlaws, now led by the blowhard Dolan (David O’Hara), and an Apache tribe, led by the gimlet-eyed Black Knife (Raoul Trujillo), who spends the requisite amount of time swapping impolite glances with Dolarhyde. And we’ve got Wilde as the mysterious Ella Swenson, first seen lurking in the backdrop, amusingly clad in bright floral skirt with black sidearm dangling like a cancerous polyp at her hip. Much like her apparel, Ella remains, in spite of Wilde’s fair tilt at making her work, a confused and ungainly hybrid, posed as tough-gal love-interest for Jake, but who also harbours a peculiar secret, which comes out after some flagrantly clumsy story twists, in which she proves to be an alien herself, albeit one of a different variety to the brutish invaders. She's looking to get even after they wiped out her race as well as help the humans, so she’s appropriated a local body. Unfortunately, the film not only never explains how she got here, how she ended up in the body she has, and why she doesn’t have any kind of technical or even particularly helpful tactical know-how to lend to the fight against the attackers. It’s hard to get away from a feeling that the writers decided to make her an alien so they wouldn’t have to try and write a love scene for her and Craig, because, you know, girls and kissing are icky. I'm not sure if the sight of Ella crawling out of a river with make-up still perfect is a deliberate touch designed to hint at her false guise or an old-fashioned bit of Hollywood glossy artificiality.
One of the film’s basic conceits is to offer, in the aliens, villains who are merely more fearsome, strange versions of the usual Western bad guys: they’re rustlers, except they’re lassoing humans and not cattle, and they’re evil prospectors after gold at all costs, because for them it’s just as scarce and attractive as to us, for reasons not at all investigated. It’s not such a bad idea if one wanted to play Cowboys & Aliens as a bit of a shaggy dog joke, but rather it plays out with a dismayingly straight face even when offering tired clichés and lumbering action scenes. The aliens in look and demeanor call to mind the shrimp-like extra-terrestrial proles of District 9 (2009), and like them seem less sophisticated than one might initially assume about outer space adventurers. This similarity however simply underlines the film’s basic lack of imagination. Nor can the film extract substance out of the confluence of alien and the atavistic when Ella is reborn from the fires of the Apache camp, although Favreau stages it with flashes of colour and strangeness (although he’s busier playing games in trying to keep a family audience whilst teasing with the chance of seeing Wilde’s backside), and the subsequent sequence in which she helps restore Jake’s memory with Indian mysticism and peyote. One image harkens to what a more inspired tilt at the same material might have achieved, that of a paddle steamer dumped unceremoniously in the middle of a vast prairie, and with the posse bunking down for the night within its broken fineries. Still, for all its laziness, Cowboys & Aliens holds the attention because of the unshakeable professionalism of the cast and crew. The film works well enough on a basic, pulp programmer level, and the notion of alien Ella providing an interlocutor in open range race war, whilst trying avenge one that happened beyond the stars, doesn't entirely waste the potential substance of this theme. The climactic moments, like Jake and Dolarhyde doing battle with the evil alien surgeon, and Ella cradling the explosive that will obliterate the alien ship like a precious child - mirroring the image of Dolarhyde holding Nat as a grieving father with her image as an exterminating mother - as she blissfully reaches her own extinction and that of her enemy, therefore retain a charge of bellicose intensity blended with measured emotional impact. Craig’s performance holds up under difficult circumstances, as does, surprisingly enough, Ford’s, giving a little credence to hopes sparked by Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull that he might be finding his late-career wind, although he still can’t rise to anything like the level he might have if he had played Jake, circa 1984.