With a title like Cowboys and Aliens, Jon Favreau’s movie seemed destined to be either a big, silly mess or a big, crazy good time. Somehow Favreau dodged the obvious and instead delivered a movie that’s a big, empty bore.
That’s the last thing I expected from Cowboys and Aliens, but thirty or forty minutes in it became clear I didn’t care about a single thing happening on screen. None of the characters clicked, nothing felt innovative or interesting, and the story was in no way compelling. To be fair, I didn’t hate the film - the actors are amiable enough and cinematographer Matthew Libatique’s photography is often stunningly beautiful - but I in no way liked it. I did not care.
How is that even possible? The film has a murderer’s row of cool, fun actors - Daniel Craig as a high plains drifter who has lost his memories and gained a mysterious alien gadget on his arm, Harrison Ford actually present in the moment as a cold-hearted cattle baron, Walton Goggins as a bandit, Clancy Brown as a tough-as-nails preacher, Olivia Wilde as a beautiful and dangerous mystery woman - and while most of them are individually watchable, they don’t add up to much of anything.
A huge part of the problem is the weirdly shitty story. Amnesiac Craig finds himself in the town of Absolution just when an alien invasion happens. The space ships lasso up the townsfolk like cattle, and regular weaponry can’t stop them… but it turns out the doodad on his wrist isn’t regular weaponry. It also turns out that Craig is a wanted man, a serious outlaw who is accused of murdering his wife. Maybe - just maybe! - those aliens have something to do with her death. Together with a group of townies he heads off after the aliens, trying to rescue their loved ones and get answers.
But there are no answers. While the film plays out like a mystery of some sort - we get progressive flashbacks to explain what happened to Craig (as if we couldn’t figure that out pretty much from the start) - the aliens have no real motivation to be taking humans. And so the mystery has no payoff; anybody with a functioning brain can figure out what happened to Craig’s wife, and then there’s no larger reveal about the aliens. The script is by Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, credited amid a flurry of previous writers, and the structure of the film feels poisoned by the JJ Abrams touch. Not everything is a mystery, guys.
There’s plenty of the poisonous Orci and Kurtzman touch as well. The plot is limp and feels arbitrary, dropping elements suddenly (“We’re trailing a wounded alien!”) in favor of new plot elements (“The Indians who arrived out of nowhere will heal your brain with peyote, meaning we no longer have to bother with the wounded alien!”). The character development is simply dismal, and some characters get redeemed by… well, by nothing. They just are, and you should fucking deal with it. One guy changes clothes and that’s all the big redemption he needs.
Don’t worry, there’s some blame to spread to Favreau as well. The entire film is limp, without any feeling of urgency or excitement. The action scenes are boring, and an attempt to create three-way parallel action in the big climax is a miserable failure. This is the sort of movie where the aliens are invincible right until the film needs them to be highly vincible, which is the worst sort of action movie bullshit. That whole climactic action scene is truly terrible, though, with some of the worst cross-cutting I’ve seen in a picture like this, and with some of the ‘action’ being simply ‘dull.’ One section has Olivia Wilde climbing through an alien ductwork system being chased by a creature who is never spatially established in relation to her, robbing the whole thing of any tension or even comprehension.
The aliens are pretty okay, except for one shockingly stupid evolutionary trait which must have come from the bad script (they have little arms that unfold from their carapace, which they use for fine manipulation. But when their hands are out, their heart is fully exposed. WTF, Intelligent Designer?). They look a lot like big locusts or grasshoppers, kind of reminding me of the Chiggers from Space: Above and Beyond. They’re definitely in line with the Super 8 monster in that they’re highly evolved intelligent beings who don’t wear clothes and bound around eating people’s faces off like monsters, a curious disconnect that would be interesting if it meant anything but probably just comes from a development process where the producers wanted space ships AND scary monsters.
The aliens are certainly more convincing than Daniel Craig, who delivers what must be a career-worst performance. He’s just sleepwalking through the movie, somehow missing the mark of the quiet gunslinger thing he’s going for. He’s simply disinterested. Ford is more in the moment, which is a triumph for him these days. I guess he just likes having a hat on his head. Whatever the reason, he’s kind of great in the film, giving all of his famous Harrison Ford reactions that tickle our geek funnybones.
Olivia Wilde, though… man, I don’t know who I should blame for her being terrible. Is it the script, which gives her absolutely no characterization until it presents a huge, stupid, moronic reveal about her in the second act (a reveal which only serves to make her less interesting)? Is it Favreau, who seems to have just let everybody get in front of the camera and do their thing? Or is Wilde herself, dead-eyed and distant the whole time? I think it’s all three; Wilde is a fine actress and screen presence, but she’s beyond useless here.
The rest of the cast is fine, even Noah Ringer from Avatar: The Last Airbender. Favreau cast a good bunch (even though Craig delivers a bad performance he’s wonderful to look at it in his cowboy clothes), and they went a long way towards keeping me awake during the film’s most boring moments (read: the entire thing).
The craziest thing about Cowboys and Aliens is that a movie with that title should be so generic. I know that I took some harsh shots at the film in the review above, but while I was watching the movie I didn’t hate it, I just didn’t care. I was looking at Libatique’s gorgeous camera work and some of the fine costume design but nothing else engaged me; there’s zero to hold onto in this film. When characters died (rarely) my only concern was ‘Oh no, now So and So won’t be able to get any more craft services.’
This movie is the definition of a dud, something that just sits inert on screen. You stare at it for an hour and a half or so and then you go home and watch something more captivating and emotionally present, like the Shake Weight commercial.