T he most confusing thing about the horrendous ‘Cowboys & Aliens’ is that the filmmakers involved did not even have to do much to make it work. It’s simple: just have cowboys battle aliens and make it fun. How hard can it be?After seeing ‘Cowboys & Aliens’ I would have to say: Impossible – well at least for the group of people that made this film.
Here’s the talent involved: Directed by Jon Favreau (who made ‘Iron Man’ and its sequel). Producers Ron Howard and Steven Spielberg. Written by ‘Star Trek,’ and ‘Transformers’ writers Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman. All of whom seem to be pushing for the ‘bigger and better’ Hollywood style of late: over-complicating and jamming so much into the movie that nothing specific ends up getting the attention it requires.
In ‘Cowboys & Aliens’ the only things more foreign then the invaders themselves; are the concepts of character, plot and story.
The movie starts out strong with amnesiac cowboy Daniel Craig, waking up in the middle of nowhere. Attached to his left arm is a device that can kill/explode things when the plot requires. A gang arrives, Craig takes them out. He gets to town and after a bar fight he is put into jail. He’s soon placed into a jail carriage (so a bounty on his head can be collected) when the aliens attack.
Thing is that he’s in the cell with Harrison Ford’s son – and when all hell breaks loose: that kid (amongst other people who have no other identifiable qualities besides: ‘Sam Rockwell’s wife’ or ‘Guy with glasses’) gets kidnapped by the aliens – which at this point are nothing more than spotlights coming from the night sky.
These opening twenty minutes of ‘Cowboys & Aliens’ give you nothing but a boringly mysterious main character who is just stoic and unreadable. All the other characters are either unlikable, terribly performed/underwritten, or just simply two dimensional.
Harrison Ford plays an outlaw who is after the aliens to recapture his son. He does have an interesting character at the beginning – but once the aliens attack (he along with the rest of the supporting characters) are reduced to nothingness. Ford is engaged with the material, and puts a lot of effort into his scenes – making them more enjoyable then what they are as written.
Almost every other actor doesn’t fare this well. None of the cast is terrible – they are just given either impossible dialogue to deliver, or no character at all. I’m amazed Olivia Wilde managed to pull a performance somewhat credible at all; based on what her character is on the page. But like Ford, she takes a horrible character it seems less awful than it actually is because of her screen presence.
Craig is given nothing to do at all, except an American accent – which he achieves (I guess – he only has about fifteen lines in the whole movie). You may think it strange to see such a reserved and quiet character: but why they decided to make the main protagonist of ‘Cowboys & Aliens’ an amnesiac is understandable. ‘The Man With No Name’ is a classic western trope, yet Jon Favreau hasn’t made a Western. The plot of this film is completely unsuitable for a movie that should have been fun blockbuster entertainment – and let’s be honest, this movie never could have worked as anything else – not a boring, plodding uninteresting mess.
Part of this is because Favreau insists on a deathly seriousness tone to underscore all of the proceedings. The film is borderline humourless, and when it finally comes around to making a joke it falls flat (well it at least did with the audience I saw it with). Again, this is a simple concept – it shouldn’t be tiresome – it should be fun.
They didn’t need to worry about making it ‘bigger and better’ because people will be coming to the film based on the title and concept, and the word of mouth: which they’ve completely fucked off by making a terrible movie that is very difficult to like.
You could have gone anywhere with this story, it could have been epic and fun, like a pulpy/ tongue in cheek adventure film in the vein of ‘The Mummy’ or something. It isn’t even self aware in the slightest; and for a film as ludicrously titled ‘Cowboys & Aliens’ the least it could have done was take itself lightly.
For a bit of perspective on how serious the movie tries to be: there are only three action sequences in the movie – the rest of the film is either poorly executed (read: boring) flashbacks for Daniel Craig, and endless, endless, endless exposition scenes describing us events that are already so boring to begin with. When Harrison Ford gets into his seventieth monologue about nothingness – it’s just hard to remain awake. It’s a snooze-fest.
So anyway, after the first alien attack and round of abductions; the gang sets out to find the alien mothership, and here’s where the film begins a massive downward spiral, that it not only never recovers from, but that it climaxes with one of the worst conclusions to a hollywood movie I’ve seen in a while (which I won’t spoil – it’s incredulous how woeful the final act is). But before any action begins, it’s just our small gang travelling across the country.
So here’s what you have: Harrison Ford, Daniel Craig and Olivia Wilde. Sam Rockwell (A bartender), and a child played by that little kid in the ‘Avatar: Last Airbender’ movie). At this point any remotely interesting characters have been done away with: either killed or abducted by the aliens. The gang soon meets a group of bandits (whom Craig used to lead before becoming an amnesiac) – and most egregiously – a bunch of Native Americans.
The movie is so stupid that they can’t manage to give you the cowboy element, even when ‘Cowboys’ in the title. It’s more like ‘A Couple of Cowboys, a bartender, a mysterious babe, some Native Americans and a child & Aliens’ more than anything else.
It’s also interesting to note that the number of Native Americans in the movie far out-number the cowboys (for most of the film). All of those aforementioned extraneous characters have their own poorly executed and underdeveloped storyline – and it’s all treated with such seriousness and gravity – the film can’t sustain all the dead weight and just ends up crumpling underneath its own over-indulgence.
At a certain point the script just forgets about all these characters anyway. The end result of the endless scenes you sit through; is only to move forward the boring and needlessly convoluted plot. It’s like Favreau and company went out of their way to make the film a turgid mess.
Nothing exists for a specific reason. Items appear or decisions are made only when the writers need to get out of a hole. The entire plot is predicated on the alien wrist thing that Craig wears; who isn’t even capable of controlling it himself.
When our main plot device almost has no relevance to character you can’t expect much else to work around it – and Craig (read: not his fault) is forced to play it as a man who has no idea where he is – until the script needs him to have a convenient flashback or some such exposition.
The script is so lazy that whenever a character is about to die, we get another character arriving to save the day at the last minute. Seriously, a deus ex machina like this just drops down from the sky at least seven times throughout the film.
Once ‘Cowboys & Aliens’ hits the half way mark – punctuated by a ludicrous and stench-ridden character reveal; which is only the first of many ludicrous and painful reveals – bits and pieces of your hope just fade away. There are the reasons for why the aliens are here, the reasons for the abductions, the Native Americans, and their purpose to serve in the story. There’s the reasoning behind the device on Daniel Craig’s wrist, and of course; the design of the aliens themselves.
Once you think you’re free from the worst, the film hits you with its final twenty five minute sequence…and you cannot imagine how bad it gets. You will see. It got so bad; that my audience turned on the picture: it began to play like a comedy – the people on my left laughed. The people behind laughed. The people on my right slapped their foreheads and the people in front just continued to shake their heads in dismay. How could a major studio picture take this route? It’s shocking; especially when the concept is such a simple and fun one.
‘Cowboys & Aliens’ becomes much more disappointing when you take this once achievable simplicity into consideration. All they needed to do to make this an enjoyable film was to have Cowboys fight Aliens. Give me lassos, give my horse stunts, give me a train chase, man just give me something uniquely western.
Like ‘Transformers 3’ tricked people into thinking there was a lot of action; ‘Cowboys & Aliens’ is going to trick people into thinking it has western elements that aren’t superficial. But I ask you this: What is exactly western about the movie (besides the appearance)? Yes people wear cowboy hats and it all sure looks like the west – look at that swinging door! Look they don’t have machine guns!
But nothing about the film is iconic. Even the landscapes seem small and enclosed. The cinematography by Matthew Libataque is indeed great to look at, but it’s as if they watched ‘True Grit’ and mimicked it – all with no understanding of what makes a western work.
It does looks pretty and it is superficially like a western, but what it lacks is any feeling or emotional investment. Favreau is mostly to blame for the lack of feeling- you can see it in the insipid, boring and flat camera work: he’s on autopilot. There is none of the flair he displayed in ‘Iron Man’ – the camera just mostly sits there, relying on the cinematography to make sure it’s at least nicely lit.
He seems to take a similar approach to the performances (as he seems to be letting Libataque do his thing with the lighting) he seems to be letting the actors do their thing, failing to guide them into a cohesive movie. Each actor gives a performance that feels like it belongs in a different film than the next actors.
Directors probably shouldn’t let people just do what they want without guidance – because then you end up with ‘Cowboys & Aliens’ a movie that rapidly changes tone, and winds up feeling like a million different films in one.
When the aliens are on screen Favreau seems somewhat engaged -but it never reaches an energy that can sustain a five minute sequence. The aliens, whilst looking awful and being void of any logic – are just beasts. They are just messes of flesh with some stupid chest cavity that opens up to reveal their beating heart. Guess where their weakness lies?
The lack of success in the alien department I think lies within the screenplay process. You need to provide us with aliens that cowboys (who do not have any technology) could easily defeat. This is a problem with the concept yes. Yet I felt that almost everything with the aliens could have been solved with them just simply crashing on Earth.
Oh well – that would be too simple. We need abductions; a reason for Daniel Craig having a wristwatch; as well as ships and creatures that run around roaring and bashing stuff up (well if you can figure out what you’re looking at – it’s not shot that well at all). It’s not like I was asking for the film to be completely logical (it’s the opposite) but a little bit of plausibility would have been nice.
The worst (and film crushing) aspects of the Aliens are spoilerish, but I’ll say that the reasons revolve around their involvement with a certain Human character. The reveal of this comes about halfway into the movie and it nearly tanked it for me.
What did tank it for me? The final twenty minutes. They were disastrous. Any goodwill that the film has built up for you will be almost gone (or in my case completely drained). In the finale there are at least five moments that are destined to become youtube memes: with one involving a kiss that was particularly groan inducing. Any semblance of believability (shit, even basic geography gets blown out the window) is shot. At a crucial point in this sequence Olivia Wilde grabs Daniel Craig by the shoulders and yells: “It’s not working because you are thinking! It only works if you just don’t think!” That’s a very, very indicative line…
In retrospect It occurs to me that maybe the concept of ‘Cowboys & Aliens’ couldn’t possibly be done seriously. It should never like this, it should never have been attempted as nothing but a tongue in cheek adventure; light hearted and fun: A bunch of earnest cowboys fight a smarter race.
Even the most basic things are missed: like that the frightening thing about aliens is that the odds of us beating them (highly advanced beings) are very slim. Missed. And since ‘Cowboys & Aliens’ provides us with complete dumbass Aliens (and also the answer to killing them within the first half hour) any possible tension and drama is removed from the movie – well at the very least; from an action standpoint.
What we’re left with is a boring and overly serious talk fest. There’s little action, no characters and no fun. Every plot choice is ridiculously stupid and illogical. Everything about the aliens is awful and everything about the cowboys is awful.
‘Cowboys & Aliens’ was only required to do one thing and since it couldn’t even do that thing right: the film is nothing but a complete disaster. An abysmal movie. Avoid.