There is simply no excuse: “Cowboys & Aliens” should have been one of the best films of the summer, if not the year.
Let me present my case: Here we have Harrison Ford and Daniel Craig starring in a movie together, two charismatic action stars who have undeniably achieved icon status. We have Steven Spielberg producing, Jon Favreau (“Iron Man”) directing, and writers Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman, and Damon Lindelof (“Star Trek,” “Lost”) in charge of the story, which attempts to be an intriguing meld of two stalwart American movie genres. See what I mean? The fact that the movie is merely “okay” definitely qualifies as a disappointment.
Set in the Old West, the story follows Jake Lonergan (Craig), who wakes up in the middle of the desert with no memory of his past and a futuristic metal device strapped to his wrist. Making his way to the town of Absolution, Jake soon runs afoul of Colonel Dolarhyde (Ford), a cattle rancher in charge of the territory, who accuses Jake of stealing a carriage full of gold from him. At the same time, a beautiful woman named Ella (Olivia Wilde) approaches Jake and offers to help him unearth the origin of the bizarre shackle on his arm….and that’s when a fleet of alien spaceships attacks Absolution and kidnaps several townsfolk.
Above all else, this movie definitely cares about its characters, and for that alone it deserves a recommendation. Before the Sci-Fi elements are fully introduced, we spend a good chunk of time with the cast, which is the wisest thing the story could’ve done. Granted, these are really just Western archetypes we’re presented with here, but thankfully, the actors infuse them with the right amount of likeability and chemistry. As a result, we want to spend even more time with these interesting folks, especially Doc (Sam Rockwell) and Meacham (Clancy Brown). During the first two acts, the plot sets aside ample time for the characters to interact and establish their winning personalities, and once the movie utilizes the classic Western trope of having them form a posse in order to search for their missing kin, we are ready to follow them anywhere.
Unfortunately, the characters kind of lose their way by the time we reach the third act because the balance of development is not spread out evenly throughout the film. In particular, the writers hammered Dolarhyde’s character arc home a little too hard – they practically beat us over the head while attempting to illustrate how change was brought about within the man. Here are the various characters the movie slings through Dolarhyde’s arc: Jake (who doesn’t get as much screen time with Dolarhyde as he should, given the men behind the roles); the posse’s requisite scared-yet-brave boy Emmett (Noah Ringer); Dolarhyde’s surrogate son, a Native American ranch hand named Nat (Adam Beach); and Dolarhyde’s biological son, an insolent loser named Percy (Paul Dano). Obviously, they are all meant to soften Dolarhyde’s bitter spirit; moreover, Dolarhyde’s spiritual journey is meant to mirror Jake’s, as they are both searching for absolution (yes, the town’s name is not a coincidence). It goes without saying that imbuing your lead characters with redemptive arcs is certainly not a bad thing; however, since the writers had to shoehorn multiple pay offs into the story for just one character, it all ends up feeling disjointed. If the scribes had streamlined Dolarhyde’s arc a bit – maybe combined the characters of Percy and Nat – then they could have done his particular storyline more justice, and by extension, had more screen time in which to better service the remaining characters.
The Sci-Fi components of this genre mash-up are introduced as a mystery, which implants a strong foothold for the audience right from the get-go. This way, we are right there with Jake from the beginning, trying to figure out what’s going on and what the hell is attached to his arm. Unfortunately, that’s about as far as the creativity goes in the Sci-Fi side of things. The aliens themselves actually prove to be solid adversaries. They are vicious and intimidating, as well as interesting from a design standpoint (although their inherent “CGI-ness” is readily apparent during the climax). The ultimate reason as to why the aliens are there works as well – the problem is that the story doesn’t really take us anywhere special.
The plot is predictable, and really, you could have switched out the aliens with any other threat and the story would have played out exactly the same. The sad truth is that the writers didn’t fully capitalize on the potential they created for themselves when they introduced aliens into the Old West, and instead, settled on a generic search and rescue story. So, what happens is that you kind of just watch these fun characters go through the motions, with no real investment in the story because it covers ground that has been tread often. We should’ve been taken to wild, imaginative heights by the time the climax rolled around.
It also doesn’t help matters that there is some cheesy stuff here. Now, I appreciate the conceit of taking different groups of people who would usually be at odds with each other in a Western (townsfolk, bandits, Indians, lawmen) and forcing them to team up in order to confront a common menace, and as such, I don’t mind that a tribe of Indians becomes involved in the story. In fact, the tribe offers an interesting perspective on the alien marauders, which is obviously something that the people of this time period don’t fully understand. The problem is that the Indians act like the stereotypes you’ve seen in every low-rate Western ever made, spewing mumbo jumbo without any personality, and it just comes across as silly. The secret surrounding Ella’s character also proves to be problematic. Again, the problem does not lie with the secret itself, but with the way in which it is handled. Once said secret is revealed, the people around her just kind of go “Oh, okay,” and then Ella becomes Miss Exposition. This plot point was definitely not fleshed out enough.
The movie looks absolutely great, though. From the color scheme to the framing of the shots to the moody lighting, it’s clear that Favreau and his guys know their Westerns and executed their film as such. The action scenes are quite fun – the opening and closing set pieces in particular are well-orchestrated and energetic. I also appreciated the film’s sense of humor, which is very grounded and character-based. I also have to mention the actors one more time, since they all played so incredibly well off each other. And lastly…let’s face it, there’s just no denying the impact of witnessing Indiana Jones and James Bond share the screen. Fun fact: Between this film and “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade,” Ford has now worked alongside the two best Bonds, and that just makes him even cooler.
Given the track records of everyone involved, there’s simply no way that these talented people would have ever made anything less than an “okay” movie together, and that’s exactly what “Cowboys & Aliens” is. But, that’s just it – with the amount of time this script spent in development, I know that Spielberg, Favreau, and the writers could’ve given us something better, a true Sci-Fi/Western mash-up classic. The potential was certainly there, but in the end, this flawed film is merely a mildly entertaining late summer diversion, which in and of itself isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I just wanted more.