Let’s start this review for Cowboys & Aliens off shooting from the proverbial hip:
When people asked my opinion regarding Cowboys & Aliens prior to screening it, the response was, “that it’s either going to be fantastic or complete garbage. And if it falls somewhere between that spectrum, that could be the worse thing for the film.”
With that said, the writing team of Robert Orci and Alex Kurtzman (Star Trek & Transformers) always provides hope, yet they had to share the duties with three other guys as they were adapting the comic book by Scott Mitchell Rosenberg. Director Jon Favreau (Iron Man franchise) is fan boys’ filmmaker who brings passion to every project. So there’s a nice pedigree behind the lens right off the bat, not to mention an accomplished cast in front of the camera.
As the 118 minutes go by, one can’t help feeling that they’re watching an arranged marriage (keyword: arranged) of Independence Day meets Wild Wild West all while encompassing a storytelling approach that resembles a Tales from the Crypt movie. Not to mention, that Favreau pretty much ripped-off the Ewok battle from Return of the Jedi and made it the entire third act of this Sci-Fi western.
Now this is either a geek’s wet dream or the dumbest idea to be given a green light by a studio in some time. After the synopsis is completed, hopefully yours truly will have a verdict.
Jake Lonergan (Daniel Craig) wakes up just outside of a town in the old west with a giant bracelet and no memory. He stumbles into town where a cattle mogul by the name of Woodrow Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford) runs the show. Unable to remember the slightest detail, we do learn that Jake knows how to handle himself as he beats down multiple locals that get in his face. Another person who is all up in his grill is Ella Swenson (Olivia Wilde). She pesters Jake but never reveals her true business with him. Well, none of that matters now for alien vessels fly in and start capturing and vaporizing the population.
Those who are left (Sam Rockwell, Adam Beach, etc.) are rounded up – whether they have gun fighting experience or not – by Woodrow and they embark on a hunt to find what happened to their family and friends. During this jaunt, Jake’s memory slowly comes back, but he still has trouble putting the pieces together (so do the writers & director). He does figure out how to use that bracelet that came out of Gene Simmons’ closet, as it makes for one handy weapon. Eventually, they cross paths with Indians who reluctantly join up with the white man, as they mount an assault on the alien ship buried in the desert mountains.
If one is looking for any rationale why the alien race is here, it’s for gold. To which Harrison Ford’s character asks in bewildered manner, “Why, are they going to buy something?” That sparse humor can work here and there, but the real question is did anyone have a thought on how to execute this concept in an entertaining manner besides calling it Cowboys & Aliens? And if we probe further, where was continuity ranked on the list of priorities? (We would need to add 2-3 paragraphs to handle that mess).
This movie feels like a rip-off in a variety of ways. Aside from the choreography of the action sequences (not as many as you think) that see alien spacecraft (average design) swooping in and wrangling up people, the screenplay looks like a mash-up of every Sci-Fi blockbuster from the last thirty years. What makes it worse is that Favreau paces this conglomerate like a true western. In fact, he is so loyal to the western aesthetic it indirectly makes the aliens’ involvement look primitive and ancillary. Just because humans are only armed with six-shooters and spears, doesn’t mean the aliens have to have an intelligence that is sub-par to say Planet of the Apes right? Why did they make this a fair fight? The humans never seem in peril!
Granted, C&A is different (thanks to the time period) and there is something to be said for keeping this product light and steady. At the very least, they tweaked the packaging of the physical alien make-up/CGI – more like creatures; not saying it’s eye-catching, but the creation tries to separate itself from the norm. Plus the production value is decent (coloring & cinematography) and the landscape this tale is set upon can have that adventurous/escapism feeling (even though it comes across like a The Golden Voyage of Sinbad from the 70s). The consistent problem that looms over this is that it’s not all that fun. And that emulation of ROTJ for the last third of the film (all I heard was Ewoks for the last half-hour), is an eye-roller. I’m sure if director Jon Favreau explained to me what he was going for it would make sense. Since the question needs to be asked though, his movie obviously didn’t sell it.
Overall, Cowboys & Aliens is shooting blanks the majority of the time, when it should have been shooting to thrill (thank you AC/DC). When they try to blend the plausible with the unknown – all while keeping a deadpan, realistic approach – it just doesn’t mesh in the lively way it should have. Maybe the people who fantasize about epic battles (which this is not) or haven’t seen too many flicks such as this will get something out of this. In any case, just “showing up” with a game cast and a provocative concept is nowhere near half the battle.
Cowboys & Aliens is rated PG-13 and opens in the Tampa Bay market on Friday.