Review: Cowboys & Aliens, 2011, dir. Jon Favreau

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.

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12 thoughts on “Review: Cowboys & Aliens, 2011, dir. Jon Favreau

  1. I still haven’t seen Cowboys & Aliens yet. After such a fun trailer and amazing concept (cowboys! aliens! Harrison Ford!), the bomb reviews disappointed me so much that I haven’t even been able to watch it on rental. From the looks of things, I haven’t missed anything. Too bad, this could have been such a blast.

    • You’re missing nothing whatsoever, except maybe some gold from Ford. But that’s it. And yeah, it could have been a great time at the theater, but Favreau dropped the ball here in a big way. In retrospect I think more of the blame can be put on Orci and Kurtzman, two of the hackiest screenwriters in Hollywood, but a good director can mine something watchable out of terrible writing and Favreau just couldn’t.

  2. This was disappointing mostly because you would think a movie called Cowboys & Aliens would be aiming for B-movie camp greatness rather than playing it straight up. This was shockingly unimaginative and lifeless and I actually thought the movie would have been better without the aliens dropping in and ruining the western feel of it.

    And don’t get me started on Olivia Wilde’s character. What a joke!

    • Pretty much everything Wilde does can be summed up that way, I think.

      I actually don’t mind the movie playing it straight– it keeps the film from winking at and nudging the audience every five minutes to show off how tongue-in-cheek it is– but straight or campy, it’s just dull. The most exciting stuff happens in the opening scene, and nothing that comes afterward really matches it.

  3. I didn’t mind this film too much. You’re right, it was a bit of a slog. The aliens were really unimpressive and pretty much everything about the plot was just droll. But there were aspects which kept me marginally interested – Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford’s characters had a bit of meat on them. They played off each other really well.

    It wasn’t as fun as I was hoping, but I think the worst alien invasion film of last year was Battle Los Angeles.

    • I think the biggest crime this commits is being boring and also wasting a really fantastic concept. Battle: Los Angeles is just terribly made. Maybe the bigger offense is in the eye of the beholder. That said, I really, really wish this had been a better film; it has all the elements for greatness.

  4. hehe I loved the movie. I guess because I didn’t go in expecting man on alien action. That gets kind of boring for me. I loved the little stupid subplots that were developed. Really though I would assume a too small budget is probably the killer for ya’ll…not enough money for the kind of action you were looking for…

    So are you anticipating John Carter then?

    Cheers!

    • Almost one decade ago, Freddy vs. Jason became the first major “X vs. Y” property of the new century, and frankly I kinda dug it because it gives us exactly what it promises– two iconic killers going toe-to-toe with each other, slaying kids left and right in between the slugfests, of course. So when I see “X vs. Y” titles, or titles in that vein (which this is), I expect to see plenty of “X vs. Y” in the film. Favreau doesn’t deliver.

      I don’t know if it’s a budget issue– maybe. $163 million isn’t a small number, but maybe for animating proper alien on cowboy action it’s not enough, especially when you take into account how much Ford and Craig alone probably cost.

      I’m ambivalent about John Carter. I think the title is terrible, and nothing of the studio trailers has me excited to see the film or convinced that they’ve nailed the adaptation of the source material. But I’ll see it to make up my own mind.

      Thanks for stopping by!

  5. You’re spot on about having the Aliens be far less threatening and absent for most of the movie (thought they were going for a Signs approach – small scale invasion) and this just didn’t deliver the goods. Now that you mention it, it probably wouldn’t have hurt to have some scenes a la The Two Towers (showing the Aliens) which would better helped the narrative convergence of the two titular parties.

    Ha “an arid, inert two hours of dull filmmaking”. That’s what I got out of it. Being completely fair, I liked a good amount of it…that was until that Olivia Wilde twist then I just lost all interest and wanted it to all be over:( Hating for a second, extra-terrestrial creatures that can mine for gold should be more resistant to human arms and projectiles then they were. Belief can only be suspended for so long. Still thought Green Lantern 2011’s more unbearable title.

    • I’m okay with getting little by way of alien perspective– though that would have been kind of cool– but like you said, the movie doesn’t deliver what it promises. There’s so little alien action here in total that having some behind-the-scenes stuff with the aliens would have been a godsend.

      You know, I still haven’t seen Green Lantern. I’m wary. And my Netflix queue is backed up. Maybe I’ll check it out in the not-too-distant future, since I feel like I should see it– but I don’t know if I want to based on how largely reviled it is.

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