Much like Snakes on a Plane, it is physically impossible to stay away from a movie with a title so tempting. Cowboys? And aliens? In the one movie? Grab the smelling salts, I’m feeling woozy. How could a movie called Cowboys and Aliens not be ridiculous fun?
Well, apparently the equation to make it not ridiculously fun is this: Jon Favreau + Daniel Craig + Harrison Ford = No. Which is surprising, as Favreau directed the stellar Iron Man (though is tarnished by Iron Man 2), Daniel Craig made an excellent Bond, and Harrison Ford is [insert your favourite character of his here]. And clearly the people in the cinema who applauded at the end of the film thought it was great. I did not. Actually, by the end, I was so busy crossing my arms and sighing theatrically that I can’t believe I wasn’t punched in the face by an audience member.
The movie begins in dusty silence as Jake Lonergan (Craig) wakes up in some dirt and has no idea who he is, or why he has a mysterious metallic wristband on. After an altercation with some no-good-criminals he winds up in a single-road town with the vital elements (saloon, jail, porches to lean against) and gets into an altercation with a bratty kid called Percy Dolarhyde (Paul Dano), who holds the town in fear as his father Woodrow (Ford) is the only reason the town still survives. After another altercation with wide-eyed Ella (Olivia Wilde), Lonergan is about to get smacked down by protective father Woodrow when aliens come and ruin what could have been an interesting Western and steal half the townsfolk. Banding together despite their differences, Lonergan and Dolarhyde Snr. go to rescue everyone, followed by town doctor Doc (Sam Rockwell), preacher Meacham (Clancy Brown), Dolarhyde’s Native American sidekick Nat (Adam Beach), Ella, a kid, a dog, and some other people who are totally irrelevant. Fighting with aliens ensues, as does fighting with some bad cowboys and a band of Native Americans. Somehow, it’s still not interesting.
I have a lot of problems with this movie; so many, I can’t even really think of good parts. Wait, I know: I jumped twice at surprise alien appearances. It did a good job of feeling very 1873. (I assume.) That’s about all I can say on the positive side though. The score was nonexistent; sure, great movies don’t need false soundtracks to move them along, but this isn’t a great movie. It needed a crescendo for victorious moments to bring some emotion to the piece. The lighting, while accurate, meant that scenes shot at night (ie when the aliens most love to attack) were almost impossible to see and gave me a headache within about fifteen minutes. (Said headache may have contributed to my eventual grumpiness.)
As far as gender politics go, the movie doesn’t pass the Bechdel Test, and the three women actually in the movie are either a) a whore b) naked or c) kidnapped. As far as political correctness goes, our major interaction with a Native American community has them initially appearing as terrifying savages happy to throw a now-deceased main character into a fire; shortly afterwards, they become mystical and wise healers. It dehumanises the culture and makes you think they must be bored when they don’t have white people to attack; it just made me want to cringe.
The cast, while serviceable, were not stretched in the least—Harrison Ford is old and cranky, along with being a racist, violent asshole who lets a whole town suffer for his financial gain; Daniel Craig is as reserved, quietly violent and shirtless as he is as Bond; Paul Dano is another annoying Western caricature (though his turn in There Will Be Blood is, of course, brilliant); Olivia Wilde is as wide-eyed and other-ish as she was in Tron. Actually, Olivia Wilde’s character Ella annoyed me most in this film, I think: she stood around being frustratingly cryptic when it was clear she knew something. Instead of saying, “Right, guys, here’s what I know,” she just hung around being obtuse until the moment came—post many loved characters dying—when she felt like sharing her story.
The script was dull and predictable; no one was fun or funny, bar Rockwell’s Doc who made one flimsy joke that fell flat even on my accompanying Saturday night drunk crowd; the directing wasn’t even that great, noted by both the ridiculous pacing of the ending (with accompanying pretend danger) and one scene full of every character’s inital reaction shot to the aliens showed. Which is another point—there wasn’t nearly enough discussion about what the hell was happening, from a world where aliens were so far removed that not even ET had screened on television yet. The lack of discussion about aliens was about as surprising as the lack of horror of everyone who had just had a loved one snatched by demons. Were there no emotions in the past? Was sadness not mined until the 1890s?
The trouble is that a movie called Cowboys and Aliens calls to mind something much more fun than what was ultimately made. It takes itself far too seriously without having any stand-out parts to make it work as a serious film. It’s bleak, dark, completely boring and full of characters so horrible you honestly couldn’t care if aliens killed everyone but the kid and the dog.
I give it one out of four gross alien arms.