Jon Favreau’s Cowboys & Aliens is the equivalent of putting chocolate and peanut butter together and getting a rice cake. Westerns can be great, sci-fi can be wonderful, and yet the attempt to bring them together has resulted in a bland, flavorless movie. The script is a mess, all of the storylines are uninteresting, the action is flat, there’s not much room for lead actors Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford to do much beyond growl and grimace, and the usually inspired cinematography of Matthew Libatique is a grand disappointment. Despite all of these problems, the movie does nothing outright offensive other than waste two hours of your time.
A stranger (Craig) wakes up in the desert with no memory of who he is and odd bracelet shackled around his wrist. A group of bandits pass by, see his bracelet, assume he’s an escaped convict and try to bring him in to collect on the bounty. The stranger may not know his own name, but he still remembers how to kick ass and he easily kills his three would-be captors, takes their weapons and clothes, and rides to the nearest town, Absolution. It’s the best scene in the movie and it gets your hopes up for a much better film that never happens.
We eventually learn that the stranger is the outlaw Jake Lonergan. He’s captured in Absolution and about to be sent to a federal courthouse when the town is attacked by aliens and most of its people are abducted. Lonergan is able to take down one of the ships with his bracelet-cannon and the following morning he goes after the aliens so he can find some answers. A group of the townspeople come along to rescue their kin. Colonel Dolarhyde (Ford) wants his dipshit son (Paul Dano) back, Doc (Sam Rockwell) is going after his wife (Ana de la Reguera), a little kid (Noah Ringer) wants to rescue his grandpa/the town’s sheriff (Keith Carradine), and a mysterious woman named Ella (Olivia Wilde) also joins the posse.
That’s five storylines and none of them are particularly interesting. Part of the problem is that we hardly learn anything about the characters and they rarely interact with each other. There’s no banter, there’s no complex relationships, and while they may share scenes, they hardly ever speak to each other. It’s the most basic screenwriting the nine writers credited to the film could muster: here’s what these characters want (and Lonergan’s motives become nebulous by the third act). No one bothered to make you care and no one considered nixing a couple of the storylines so we could invest in a smaller group of characters.
But that’s just part of the script’s many problems. No one seems to understand the tropes of either genre beyond “Cowboys wear Stetsons and ride horses, Aliens have spaceships and use futuristic weapons.” There’s no real attempt to have the genres interact in a meaningful way beyond “Look at how technology changes the relationship between the conqueror and the conquered.” The story even goes so far as to reveal that the aliens are after our gold. But for the analogy to hold true, it would mean that a single Native American armed only with one rifle could have taken down the first European settlers.
More problematic is that the aliens’ motives and our characters’ understanding of the aliens changes from scene to scene. We eventually learn that the aliens are abducting humans so they can study us and learn our weaknesses before beginning the real invasion. But their ship is still mining gold. Are the aliens just thoughtful multi-taskers who figure “Hey, as long as we’re on this science expedition, may as well get some gold in dem dar hills.” Later on, a character says that the best way to fight the aliens is to draw them out into broad daylight since they’re subterranean creatures. When the aliens come outside to fight the humans, they seem to have no problem fighting in the daytime and the proceeding battle shows the humans struggling to defeat the creatures. Oddly, bullets don’t do much but a well timed charge with a wooden spear seems to do the trick.
Favreau looked like he was improving his staging of set pieces with Iron Man 2, but Cowboys & Aliens is a big step back. The climactic battle is repetitive, only one of the big alien kills is worth celebrating (and it’s telegraphed so obviously throughout the film that it’s not much of a surprise), and Lonergan’s big fight against multiple aliens is dreadfully static and woefully underwhelming considering he’s the film’s “hero”.
The excitement is further diminished by Libatique’s disastrous cinematography. Libatique has done some gorgeous films in the past but his work on Cowboys & Aliens is trying to blend the visual hallmarks of western and sci-fi but he fails to achieve either. Rather than soak in beautiful vistas, the colors are blown out and the sci-fi is the sweaty, “realistic” grime of a spaceship we’ve seen for decades. Matters are made worse by the stinginess of close-ups thus creating even more distance from characters we don’t particularly care about.
All of these factors make it difficult to blame any of the actors for their one-dimensional performances. What’s confusing is that no one except for Rockwell and co-star Walton Goggins—who plays a member of Lonergan’s old gang—look like they’re having any fun. That makes sense for a grumpy character like Dolarhyde and at least Ford appears invested in the role. At multiple times during the film I wish the script had been carved down to just Dolarhyde’s quest to retrieve his biological son while accompanied by his two surrogate sons, the kid and the Native American he adopted years ago (Adam Beach). Instead we get awkward scenes where characters just recite their back-stories to each other and Dolarhyde stiffly gives the kid a knife with the unspoken agreement “You’ll use this in the third act to kill an alien.”
I’ve gone on about the film’s faults for almost two pages and yet I could keep going about the film’s numerous problems but perhaps its greatest advantage is that I just didn’t care about anything. The movie ran at 24 frames-per-second, it ran for about two hours, and nothing in it aroused positive or negative feelings in me. It was simply there and while I could see its many flaws, the tone is so muddled and unenthusiastic that at most I felt like I was part of a half-assed experiment, came to the conclusion that it didn’t work out, and now was the time to grab a Reese’s peanut-butter cup.