Cowboys and Aliens: The Feel-Bored Movie of the Summer
How did this happen? Two of my favorite genres, western and science fiction, two of my favorite action stars, Harrison Ford and Daniel Craig, and a director that has mastered multiple genres, Jon Favreau, all add up to a dull and dreary film called Cowboys and Aliens. It pains me to say this, since I’ve tracked this film from day one and have been hyped about seeing it, but the characters are boring cliches, most of the action is unimpressive, and the scripts grossly lacks a sense of humor. It’s a movie called Cowboys and Aliens that really wants you to take it seriously and fails for a numbers of reasons to be detailed below.
A cowboy (Daniel Craig) wakes up in the desert with no memory and a strange metal bracelet trapped to his arm. He stumbles into the town of Absolution (every town out West has a symbolic name), and when young Percy (Paul Dano) starts terrorizing locals, the cowboy sets him straight. Problem: turns out Percy is the son of Woodrow Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford), whose cattle money makes him the most powerful terror in the West– even the Sheriff (Keith Carradine) takes orders from him. When alien ships come in and rope away several members of the town (including Percy and the sheriff), the cowboy, Dolarhyde, his Native American cattlehand (Adam Beach), the Sheriff’s grandson (Noah Ringer), the saloon owner (Sam Rockwell), the preacher (Clancy Brown), and a strange woman (Olivia Wilde) set out on horseback to track down the aliens and save their people.
There’s an inherent problem obvious from the above paragraph: Harrison Ford is woefully miscast if Woodrow Dolarhyde is supposed to be any kind of ruthless tyrant. Grouchy tyrant? Okay. But the type that Percy feels free to shoot at people, boss around the sheriff, and then say, “When my dad gets through with you…”? No. In Ford’s first scene, he’s torturing and interrogating a cattlehand he believes killed his cows, and it’s utterly unconvincing. What is convincing is his transformation from angry feared man to vulnerable man in search of redemption. Ford plays the latter half extremely well, but sadly, unless you can make me believe both halves of your character’s story, then the predictable journey your character embarks upon is not believable.
Not that Ford is to blame– he does what he does best in the film, as does everyone else. Yet they seem to phone it in, because the writing lets them down. This paragraph will contain no spoilers. The young boy is given an important knife and told to be a man when the time comes. During the final alien attack, what do you think he does? The saloon owner tries to learn to shoot a gun, but is terrible at it. When an important shot has to be made during the final battle, who do you think will take it? The Native American cattlehand sees Dolarhyde as a father figure, but Dolarhyde refuses to call him son or give him approval. When one of these characters is in grave danger, what does the other do for him, and what does the former do in exchange for the latter’s gesture? Dolarhyde hates Native Americans– who saves the Native American chief during the final battle? The film sets up a series of obvious moments and earns none of them.
Which takes us to the MOST obvious twist, and this will contain a spoiler, so skip to the next paragraph if you’re dense and want to maintain the surprise that this non-surprise holds. For the past several months, I’ve told everyone I know, “Olivia Wilde is an alien.” She’s the character that seems to know everything about the aliens. She appears naked facing a group of people in the trailer. Either she’s both super-intelligent and super-free-spirited, or she is also an alien. Her first lines in the movie that I can recall are “You don’t remember what happened, do you?” She also says shortly later, “They took my people too.” Who talks like this? ALIENS. She’s an obvious alien, and the set-up to the reveal is laughable. Not laughable at all is the fact that they obviously filmed her naked rear and then covered it up with bad CGI fire. Wilde’s performance is good if you consider she needs to be playing a character devoid of human emotions or characteristics.
The final battle is the only action with potential, and it gets going for a while. We see the aliens, and they’re fast, strong, and vicious. They outrace galloping horses tackle them, slicing, pummeling, and biting cowboys. It gets cool for about five minutes. Then the aliens simply *stop* attacking long enough for a character to make a rallying speech, at which point now Native Americans on foot catch some aliens and start beating them to death with sticks. That sums up the core of my problem with Cowboys and Aliens: the entire movie seems to be tailor made to do what’s convenient for everyone. It’s convenient for actors to have easy cliched stories to tell, for Ford to not have to try to be evil, for the action to just mosey in and mosey out here and there, for the writers to just write anything at all and have the actors saying, and for the aliens to be unstoppable when convenient and easily stoppable when convenient. It’s a massive disappointment– this corral is way less than OK.
P.S. Many of the scenes take place at night and are shot so dark that it’s often difficult to decipher what’s going on.