Despite an interesting premise and a good cast, Cowboys & Aliens never quite comes together. How could a team-up like Jon Favreau, Ron Howard, Brian Grazer, and Steven Spielberg not get this right? Unfortunately, the movie is “just okay.” It’s an example of what happens when you buy an idea without a great story to back it up. And it’s what happens when it takes six A- list writers to craft a screenplay, based on a work that itself isn’t very interesting.
Cowboys & Aliens lacks most of the elements of good science fiction and qualifies as a western only because of the bundle of cliched characters, a beautiful desert hills setting, and all the horses. That said, it may find an audience with those who have never seen a good western or appreciate a good science fiction story. It could be dismissed as “another summer blockbuster romp, sure to please general audiences.” With the fun premise, the stellar cast, producer Spielberg and director Favreau, it may get favorable initial box office returns, but it fails to live up to its potential to rival all the summer movies released this year. It should be better than all the sequels released this summer. But it’s not. In comparison, it doesn’t quite match up to past summer hits like Independence Day or Men in Black.
It’s not as fun as a movie with the title Cowboys & Aliens should be. I wasn’t looking for humorous by any means, but there was not one point in the packed movie house where the crowd had any reason to laugh, cheer, or gasp. The story lacked tension and energy. From scene to scene the characters didn’t convincingly indicate the gravity of their would-be, desperate situations. And we were never quite pulled into the world in any gripping way–you keep waiting for something to happen, then the movie is over.
Fortunately the film has no relation to the graphic novel created by Scott Rosenberg and written by Fred Van Lente and Andrew Foley. The graphic novel is a simple analog of alien imperialism over humans as a reflection of European imperialism over the native Americans, and that’s about it. Not enough to turn into a good comic book, let alone a good movie. Add to that the six screenplay contributers (including Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman who wrote the iffy 2009 Star Trek script) who couldn’t pull a complete story out of a good idea, and proved yet again that a story written by committee rarely works. It is frustrating that an idea as fun as mixing aliens into the 1800s Old West is so hard to make awesome. Even kids mixing toy soldiers and science fiction figures could come up with a fun story.
The best of the film is the cast. As for the lead cast, Olivia Wilde’s character Ella was the stand-out. She seemed to do the best she could with her role and, as with her with roles in Tron: Legacy and House, M.D. , she is fun to watch. And Daniel Craig delivered an excellent performance as the western movie drifter with the secret past, Jake Lonergan. But his character was put into too many strange circumstances, and we never got to see how a man in the 1880s would react to aliens vs someone in the 2010s. Daniel Craig’s past roles have been so good, this one probably falls toward the bottom of the list. Audiences are starving to see the next Han Solo or Indiana Jones role for Harrison Ford. Billed as Ford’s “Rooster Cogburn” performance, Ford’s, Colonel Dolarhyde (a really bad name, by the way) is a one-note character. The audience wants to like this performance, but we don’t know how we’re supposed to feel about this character. At one point we’re told he’s tough and we feel he’s meant to be the traditional man in the black hat, but everything else indicates otherwise, and we don’t have enough back story to know what to think.
As for the supporting cast, Clancy Brown (Starship Troopers, Medium, Leverage, Law and Order, Lost, Enterprise) shows how great a supporting actor he is as the town’s preacher. Keith Carradine also delivers a believable performance as the sheriff. But as with Favreau’s Iron Man 2, another annoying Sam Rockwell performance almost reduces his scenes to cringe-worthy.
One more positive thing–I loved the “arm gun”. It’s not in the graphic novel, so it’s a great addition and helps make Daniel Craig’s every move as cool as he is as James Bond.
The movie might have been more exciting if they hardly showed us the aliens at all (like the shark in Jaws). When they appear, it is too much too often, and the aliens were a mix of creatures we had seen before, lifeless like the bugs from Starship Troopers, grotesque like Kuato from Total Recall, and the scenes are shot just like the aliens in the Alien movies. The creatures should be terrifying, to the point that the humans should be running for their lives screaming–especially for people who have no concept of space travel or extraterrestrials. They just aren’t.
The soundtrack starts with a good clip but ultimately relies too much on what sounded like a modern electric guitar ballad instead of a full orchestral sound–an epic, grandiose score you’d expect from a western, which might have helped save the film.
Not that my standards for a video rental should be any different than for a movie in the theater, but this may play better on video or late-night cable. I wouldn’t mind seeing a few of the western scenes again, just not enough to buy another movie ticket. The opening, for example, gets off to the right start, with Craig’s character executing a fight scene dive straight from Rio Bravo.
Unfortunately, this one left me wishing for a real good western or good sci-fi movie.
Cowboys & Aliens is in theaters. 2.5 of 5 stars.