Cowboys and Aliens (2011) – Directed by Jon Favreau – Starring Daniel Craig, Harrison Ford, Olivia Wilde, Sam Rockwell, Clancy Brown, Keith Carradine, Adam Beach, Abigail Spencer, Noah Ringer, Paul Dano, and Walton Goggins.
Cowboys. Aliens. James Bond. Han Solo. Thirteen. Zaphod Beeblebrox. The Kurgan. Wild Bill Hickock. Boyd Crowder. In a film by the guy who brought you Iron Man and Elf. Obviously, COWBOYS & ALIENS is going to be a movie best described as …
A chore to watch.
COWBOYS & ALIENS is not a horrible movie but it is utterly disappointing in its mediocrity. Jon Favreau has become one of my favorite directors over the years, but all of the fun and energy he brought to many of his previous films is completely lacking here. Instead of taking his inspiration from westerns like The Professionals or Sam Raimi’s Quick and the Dead, Favreau seems to want to make something like The Man with No Name But with Aliens.
The question I have is, Why?
Daniel Craig spends the movie scowling. Harrison Ford spends the movie growling. Olivia Wilde spends the movie looking concerned. Sam Rockwell spends the movie whining. The aliens spend the movie capturing and torturing humans and only one of them has even a blip of a personality. I’ve nothing against a serious western or a serious sci-fi flick, of course, but when you’ve assembled this much talent and you’re spending over $160 million to make a summer film … I don’t know, I’d kind of like to be having a good time. It’s incredibly disappointing because Favreau’s strength is getting the best out of personalities, and here … nothing.
I don’t want to rag too hard on Favreau because, as I said, I think he’s a fantastic director, but he clearly drops the ball with COWBOYS & ALIENS. The story here is solid, but it’s all filmed and paced roboticly. There’s no personality in his direction, no life. It’s seemingly just one “set up a camera and shoot whatever happens” shot after another.
The film starts off rather promisingly, with Jake Lonergan waking up in the desert with no recollection how he got there or who he is. Three men ride up on him and decide to take him in, and Jake completely kicks their ass. He then rides into town and after getting stitched up by the preacher (Clancy Brown), he does the whole “I’m the baddest man alive” routine again, so the film has this really solid, serious vibe to it.
But then the aliens show up and start firing and kidnapping, and we get introduced to our cast of characters that’s going on a rescue mission. Between Jake, Woodrow Dolarhyde (Ford), Ella Swenson (Wilde), Doc (Rockwell), Nat (Adam Beach), Meacham (Brown), and Emmett (Noah Ringer), there’s not a single bit of fun in the bunch. Now, loved ones have just been kidnapped so there’s no real reason for any of these folks to be all Shiny Happy People, but maybe we could have been given someone to lighten the mood. I brought up Richard Brooks’ The Professionals earlier, and that film provides a fine blueprint on how to do a movie like this; despite the seriousness of the situation, Brooks assembles a diverse cast of personalities to play off one another. There’s super serious Lee Marvin, but he’s offset by the charming roguish personality of Burt Lancaster. Here, we’ve got dour Daniel Craig offset by the grumpy Harrison Ford.
Would it kill someone to smile? Just once?
Now, despite all of this, COWBOYS & ALIENS is still an okay movie. There’s always something going on, so while I wasn’t engaged, I wasn’t bored, either. I didn’t hate where the movie was taking me, I just wanted it to be a better ride.
For instance, the group sets off and spends their first night in an upside down riverboat steamship that’s lying in the middle of the desert. It’s pouring rain outside and there’s an alien around. Dolarhyde has a “be a man” talk with Emmett. Meacham has a “be a man” talk with Doc. Jake and Ella chat. Then the alien shows up and you can barely see anything because it’s so dark.
The traveling group meets up with Jake’s old gang, whom he left so he could shack up with a woman he keeps seeing in flashback. She was a whore, which we know because all of Jake’s men say “whore” about 82 times. Jake engineers an escape, but then the alien ships show up again and before you know it, our group is beset by Indians. Then everyone teams up for the raid on the alien ship.
None of this is awful, but I struggled to find something to cling to as I watched the movies. The movie touches on the themes of family and what it means to be a man, but it doesn’t explore any of them. Dolarhyde has this big talk with Emmett about how he needs to be a man. He tells the kid that when he was a kid, he used a knife to kill an injured man who begged him to kill him. Dolarhyde even gives Emmett the very knife he used, so you’d think the movie would set up a tough moment where Emmett is asked to kill someone in the group.
He just uses the knife to kill an alien, which he presumably would have done even if Dolarhyde hadn’t said anything about being a man.
The aliens are never developed as characters, so when the big final raid happens, it’s just humans killing aliens that all look alike and act alike. There’s one alien that has a personal beef with Jake, but he’s there and then he’s dead within a few minutes so it barely registers.
I’m not mad that I watched COWBOYS & ALIENS, but I am disappointed it wasn’t better.