Cowboys & Aliens, director Jon Favreau’s latest high-budget venture, opens in a bleak but picturesque New Mexico landscape in the 1870’s, and a dazed cowboy (Daniel Craig) notices a peculiar electronic bracelet afixed to his wrist. He evidently cannot remember his name or anything else, and he soon wanders into a Western town inhabited by various folks, including a hardened Colonel (Harrison Ford), a mysterious beauty (Olivia Wilde), a frank preacher (M.C. Gainey), and a clueless saloon owner (Sam Rockwell). He discovers that his name is Jake Lonergan, and that he is wanted for a variety of terrible crimes, including murder. However, the threat of an invading alien spacecraft comes to the forefront, as friends and family members of the townspeople are captured by these bizarre creatures that they call “demons” – at that time, humans had yet to invent the term “aliens,” and the thought of another planet with living beings would never have crossed their minds. Lonergan joins forces with the various residents of this town, in addition to a number of Apache Native Americans, to fight this despicable, unknown evil.
The film’s title could hardly be more obvious, and it is, truly, a remarkably unique and promising plot, yet it falls short of the tremendously high expectations that Favreau has unintentionally set by casting the men best known as Indiana Jones and James Bond (Ford and Craig, respectedly). The story is based on the 2006 comic by Scott Mitchell Rosenberg, which created a most unusual combination of narrative elements: an extra-terrestrial invasion in The Old West. Unbeknownst to many, a straight-to-video film of the same subject was released in 1994, titled Oblivion. Favreau, of course, and his fellow screenwriters—including Damon Lindelof (Lost) and Mark Ostby (Iron Man)—aimed to thoroughly expand the plot, yet their endeavors to embellish the story line are lost in a sea of explosive action sequences. Favreau succeeded in reinvigorating the excitement of Iron Man as a superhero, and faltered considerably with its sequel. And, unfortunately, his preoccupation with exorbitantly pricey films continues (Cowboys & Aliens cost around $100 million), which has caused him to overthink the film itself. Despite the film’s considerable running time of 118 minutes, it is rather disappointing that the characters are not sufficiently fleshed out: I did not care whether they lived or died.
The alien invasion is eerily similar to 80’s movies like Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T., with correspondingly hackneyed science-fiction conventions. Additionally, although we eventually come to comprehend the visitors’ reasons for coming to Earth, it is somewhat unclear why they are taking people to their spaceship. Favreau’s formidable actors’ talents far outweigh the performances they give here. Admittedly, the script has its moments of “True Grit”-style glory, but it is primarily saddled with annoyingly conventional phrases (i.e. “You don’t remember anything?”). Combing two distinguishable genres is no easy task, and I applaud the film for endeavoring to achieve such a feat. Regardless, a film cannot be lauded solely due to its innovative premise. But I cannot deny the amusement that arises upon seeing cowboys on horseback shooting at fast-whizzing spacecrafts. I assume more seriousness than hilarity was intended, but I found it difficult to place considerable weight on events and to emphatize with the characters.
Craig is an incredible likeable criminal/hero, though I cannot confidently say where exactly he fits into the story (is he a criminal or a hero, or both?). His American accent consists of a great deal of mumbling, but he says very little. The inevitable romance between his charismatic cowboy and Wilde’s mystifying foreigner is set in stone from the moment she lustfully sets her glossy eyes on him. Ford who, like Indiana Jones in the 2008’s The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, is “getting too old for this” (i.e. physically grueling action/adventure movies). He essentially grunts and groans his way through the dialogue, but from what I have heard that is akin to his demeanor. Wilde is the epitome of exquisiteness, but the House star’s biggest accomplishment is crying on cue.
Fortunately, Cowboys & Aliens was not filmed in 3-D, which certainly would have caused numerous other problems. The movie is, sadly, unsuccessful at being cohesive: bits and pieces of movie magic are strewn throughout, such as Paul Dano as the Colonel’s cowardly yet refreshingly blunt son. Therefore, its upsetting that more of these interesting elements were not utilized, because the movie had exceptional potential. Strangely, Harry Gregson-Williams’ originally score more successfully and succintly blends the Western and fantastical elements of the plot than does the plot itself, and the authenticity of the costumes and scenery is appreciated, yet it cannot save Jon Favreau’s latest big-budget flick.