Operating under the misguided belief that enough time has passed since Barry Sonnenfeld’s abysmal Wild Wild West in the late nineteen nineties, director John Favreau takes a break from the Iron Man franchise to deliver a genre hybrid that, unfortunately, is as uninspired and obvious as its silly title suggests. Combining the most generic elements of both the western and the sci-fi genres, Cowboys & Aliens is a film where the occasional sense of fun is far outweighed by the omnipresent sense of stupid; where the action is for the most part unexciting, and the underwritten characters are unenthusiastically played by famous actors capable of so much more.
It strikes me that there is a half-way decent Western buried in here somewhere. At the films outset, Daniel Craig (Quantum of Solace) awakens in the desert with a strange metal device around his wrist and absolutely no memory of who or where he is. A veritable Man With No Name, these first fifteen or so minutes are promising; two early instances in which our hero finds himself in fist fights constitutes by far the most entertaining action in the film, and also serve as a pertinent reminder to what a great and physical James Bond Craig makes. Unfortunately, requisite plotting soon reveals that Craig is in fact Jake Lonergan, an outlaw wanted for stealing gold from Colonel Woodrow Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford; Morning Glory), a rich and powerful cattleman who doesn’t take kindly to thieves.
Of course just as Dolarhyde is about to exact his revenge, alien spacecraft suddenly mosey into town, blasting their death rays willy nilly and abducting screaming citizens left, right and centre. Suddenly the two men must band together, form a posse and head on out into the wildness in hot pursuit of the extra-terrestrial fiends. Said posse is made up largely of your typical Western types – the straight laced citizen, (Sam Rockwell; Moon), world-weary preacher (Clancy Brown; The Informant!), expert tracker & token Apache (Adam Beach; Flags of Our Fathers), a few grizzled stockmen who double as fodder for alien lasers, as well as a beautiful and mystifying woman (Olivia Wilde; Tron: Legacy).
The performances from the generally stellar cast are middling, and reflective of the clichéd, uninteresting characters that the various actors are forced to portray. As with so many films where amnesia is central to the story, I had little interest in uncovering any of Lonergan’s past, especially as it becomes increasingly clear how generic and boring it is. Craig does silent and stoic well – when he talks, the American accent, although not entirely unconvincing, just sounds plain wrong coming out of 007’s mouth. It doesn’t help that he’s being asked to sell not one but two romantic subplots, both of which are as thin as paper and as passionate of soggy cardboard. Olivia Wilde does a poor job as the more prominent of the two love interests, a character whose part in the story is as unnecessary as it is absurd.
Those hoping to see Harrison Ford in a rare villainous role will also be disappointed; by the end of the first act his characters redemption is already well underway, while Ford looks about as interested in his part in the movie as I was. Sam Rockwell and Clancy Brown at least seem to be trying, but there’s little they can do in such predictable roles. Paul Dano (There Will Be Blood) on the other hand, is incomprehensibly bad – like, worst performance of the year bad – as the snivelling Dolarhyde Jr. Why his father wasn’t happy to let him rot in an alien spaceship is far beyond me.
The aliens are even more insipid, both in their characterisation and design. It’s ironic really; early Westerns depict a revisionist version of American history where the noble white man was the conqueror of the uncivilized “Injun”. Now, in the age of political correctness, Favreau goes to great lengths to include positive Native American characters in his films heroic climax, only to imbue the inter-stellar villains with the same one-dimensional badness audiences would have associated with Apaches and Comanches half a decade earlier. Despite their superior technology, the aliens in this film are depicted as savage, greedy and completely devoid of individual identity – why they are abducting people is never adequately explained – and audiences are asked to root for their deaths at the hands of the morally righteous humans.
Cowboys & Aliens does manage to limp along with some life for it’s first two thirds, thanks mostly to Craig and a couple of individually well crafted scenes of atmosphere (a sequence in an overturned steamboat, blessedly free of alien blasting, is amongst the best moments in the film). But the final climax, following the recovery of Lonergan’s memory thanks to some Indian peyote, is such a cacophony of mindless and uncreative action that it seems to drag on forever. Unnamed characters, human and alien, are killed in their dozens without the slighted emotional resonance or flickering of excitement. It’s not as ugly as Battle: Los Angeles, but it’s certainly just as dull. And believe it not, it might just be dumber as well.