It’s amazing that in a single year we saw the release of four alien invasion films, and of that quartet only one turned out to be any good. How do three different directors miss the mark making variations on the same type of movie? Being kind, Super 8 only falls off the rails in its last half hour, but Battle: Los Angeles wound up being nearly unwatchable despite the strength of its leading man and aesthetic qualities reminiscent of 2009’s masterful District 9. Which leaves us with Jon Favreau’s simply titled Cowboys & Aliens, a film boasting a concept so elegantly simple and campy that the notion of him possibly screwing it up feels completely absurd. But what what he’s left audiences with isn’t the rip-roaring genre mash-up that the title promises; rather, the movie is an unmitigated mess of good ideas blended with terrible execution.
Cowboys & Aliens isn’t the sort of production whose plot needs much explaining; the title alone gives away the film’s basic conceit. Following an initially nameless wanderer, whom we later learn is wanted man Jake Lonergan (Daniel Craig), the story opens up into an alien invasion plot set in a Western. As so often tends to be the case, Earth boasts resources deemed valuable by the interloping space faring creatures, and it’s up to a ramshackle group of assorted characters to fend them off and protect the planet. Like I said– elegant. Nothing here is especially complicated, which is fine– a central scheme like this doesn’t need to be fussed with. In fact, in a movie of this sort, I might go so far as to argue that plot first and foremost serves as an excuse to get the two eponymous groups of characters to duke it out with each other. Put the extraterrestrials in a saloon with a pack of rustlers and watch the sparks fly.
The problem, though, is that the conflict between both sides here is turgid and boring. Cowboys & Aliens is one of those times when combining things that in theory could go well together falls flat on its face. It’s not enough to put cowboys and aliens into the same film. They have to appear in the same scenes together, more than a few times and for more than just a few moments. Paul W.S. Anderson made the same mistake to far more disastrous results in his Alien vs. Predator movie, but the effect is only slightly less crippling here: there’s simply not enough of what the title proposes. I’d be willing to wager that in total, the film contains more conflict between humans than with space invaders.
And if Favreau wanted to be a tease, he at least could have done more to make the aliens themselves interesting and the cowboy-on-alien violence arresting. Instead, the action here feels fairly stock, the creature design generic. And incongruous. When highly advanced beings from another planet boasting technology far more sophisticated than that of the human race, you expect them to engage in combat involving more nuance than leaping out at quarry from bushes and sneaking through the dark, but the monsters here act like you’d expect just about any alien in any film of this sort to act. But the worse crime committed lies in their artistic conception. Put bluntly, they’re uninspired when they should be memorable; they’re the film’s centerpiece, but they make little to no lasting impression on us.
Maybe a lot of that has to do with how they’ve been sketched, but the film’s over-emphasis on the numerous woes and worries of its human characters doesn’t help either. In a movie titled Cowboys & Aliens, there’s a remarkable shortage of the former and far too much of the latter; the aliens appear only for an extended amount of time during the last act, and before that are treated like lurking, skulking predators rather than the intergalactic raiding force they are. Mostly, we’re stuck with the cowboys. In some respects that’s okay; there’s some fun scenery chewing going on here, with Harrison Ford doing most of the jawing as cattle baron and film heavy Colonel Dolarhyde, but for the most part these characters aren’t particularly compelling.
Unfortunately, Favreau doesn’t seem to feel the same way. He’s constructed a sub-plot for just about everybody in his cast. That’s not necessarily a crime, but it’s the way none of them satisfactorily pay off that’s problematic. I don’t really expect much by way of classic human drama in a film about cowboys getting into gunfights with aliens, but Favreau sets up most of his characters to have some kind of catharsis by the film’s climax. Dolarhyde’s meant to learn a lesson about family and fatherhood; Lonergan’s meant to recover his missing identity and come into his own as a hero. There’s more in between (the sheriff’s grandson learns to be a man, white men and Native Americans learn to work together and coexist), but none of it works. The emotional stuff here all feels perfunctory, even forced, as though Favreau shoe-horned it into the film.
But none of it belongs. Or maybe it does, but it’s just not well-orchestrated. In the end, it’s hard to figure out if it’s one or the other, but truth to tell it doesn’t really matter. Cowboys & Aliens never fully coheres into anything worth watching. The film contains some promise, but regrettably that’s all stored up in the opening ten minutes, which represent the best Cowboys & Aliens has to offer. A picture of this sort, boasting so much talent both behind and in front of the camera, should be a slam-dunk and succeed as rousing entertainment, but the efforts of Favreau and his cast add up to nothing more than an arid, inert two hours of dull filmmaking.