The fact that ‘Cowboys & Aliens‘ was a movie make-over for a comic book came as no surprise to me. I was all set to give this film kudos for being one of the (very) few original scripts making the rounds of the mainstream circuit nowadays and then I discovered that this gun-slinging tale was loosely based on the 2006 Platinum Studios graphic novel of the same name. After ten minutes of viewing, my enthusiasm for this highly promoted feature continued to take a sharp dive.
The two contrasting elements – headlined in the title – never really flowed together enough to form one seamless cinematic production. Try to envision the cast of ‘Silverado’ going up against the invaders from ‘Independence Day‘ and you almost get a feel for how the entire plot was executed. The story started off with an opening scene of the audience being dropped in the middle of a scorching desert as a man (Daniel Craig, now well-known for his role as the new and electrifying James Bond) awakened beneath the blistering Arizona sun with no memory. After commandeering the horse and clothes of a wily desert traveler and his sons, the nameless man made his way toward a crumbling 1873 mining town. It was at this point where the central plot started an inevitable split straight down the middle, leaving the audience with the feeling of having to view two separate story lines being acted out at once. On the one hand, we watched as the typical western, with the standard set of characters all lined up for their cue to step onto the dusty scene, played out before us. There was the idyllic sheriff (Keith Carradine), who had his hands full trying to keep the local patriarch’s bafoonish son (Paul Dano, ‘Little Miss Sunshine‘) in check, a sizzling dame (played by Olivia Wilde) who seemed to know much more about the handsome newcomer she set her eager eyes on than she was initially letting on (this notion is only enhanced by the fact that she was wearing a leather gun belt when we first encountered her, a little atypical for women’s fashion during that time period), and – no surprise here – there was the nameless stranger with a slippery temper, who was sharp with a right-hook and deadly with a six-shooter. After the stereotypical cast of townspeople, including Doc (Sam Rockwell, ‘Moon’), the frustrated saloon owner, his hopelessly devoted wife, and the multi-skilled Pastor Meacham (Clancy Brown), who also doubled as the town’s impromptu doctor and peacekeeper, engaged in the classic main street showdown, we were suddenly thrust into the midst of a sci-fi thriller. Our mysterious hero (as it turned out he was actually an infamous train robber named Jake Lonergan) and the remaining townsfolk who survived the fiery alien invasion must trudge up against forces they can barely comprehend (the aliens are initially referred to as flying demons) in order to rescue their kidnapped kinsfolk.
The remainder of the movie flip-flopped between stressing importance on the burgeoning love story between Lonergan and Ella Swenson (Wilde), sporadic fist fights, gun play, and cliche filled arguments, and the hero having to set aside a nice chunk of time to settle an old debt and wash away bad blood with his former gang. The constant clash of emotional leverage was the most consistent aspect of the entire film. Flashbacks of tender moments between Lonergan and his deceased former prostitute lover were suddenly morphed into face cringing glimpses of horrific experiments performed by the faceless aliens on their human subjects, and then followed up with randomly placed pieces of dialogue that invoked giddy laughter. Overall, ‘Cowboys & Aliens‘ never decided on a definite tempo for the audience to grab onto. Halfway through the bumpy ride, I was ready to get off and perhaps mozy over to the next theater to check out what the ‘Smurfs‘ were up to.
Daniel Craig, as usual, did a wonderful turn as the unflinching hero Jake Lonergan; however, Harrison Ford’s go as the local tyrant Woodrow Dolarhyde was only barely believable (nowhere near his terrifying performance as the villainous husband from ‘What Lies Beneath‘). Unfortunately, their characters were given very little depth and development. Family issues and emotional conflicts that are presented at the onset of ‘Cowboys‘ for both men were easily resolved well before the closing credits rolled.
As for the alien themselves, I won’t give away too many details. I can tell you that the physical features of the sinister invaders in ‘Cowboys & Aliens‘ looked suspiciously similar to the outer space menace revealed in the second half of ‘Super 8‘, only shorter in height. As for their high-powered weaponry, it was reminiscent of the biotechnology from ‘ID4‘ – very slimy, dark, and menacing in appearance but nothing that we haven’t previously seen in films with a similar alien invasion theme.
For a movie that started off with a lot of hard violence that left a few adults squirming in their chairs, the ending came in a soft, cozy and slightly predictable package. The human heart and determination to never surrender, even when the odds are looming somewhere near the infinity to one mark, saved the day once again. All in all, I probably would have enjoyed this flick a lot more as a DVD release while lounging on my comfortable sofa at home.
‘Cowboys & Aliens‘ was directed byJon Favreau and also starred Adam Beach (‘Big Love‘).