Ah, the pleasures of the genre mash-up. I like westerns and I like sci-fi and I like action movies, so Cowboys and Aliens should be right up my alley. (Then again, I don't think there's really a genre I don't like.) It's been garnering some serious buzz, what with its starring Harrison Ford and Daniel Craig - Indiana Jones and James Bond themselves - and being helmed by Jon Favreau, fresh off the Iron Man series. A good trailer didn't hurt either. It's
In hindsight, the movie might've done better if it hewed more closely to it's, um, source material.
A man (Daniel Craig) wakes up in the middle of the desert, having lost his memory, and with a mysterious metal device strapped to his wrist. He wanders into the remote town of Absolution, where he runs afoul of the drunken, brutish Percy (Paul Dano), son of local cattle baron Colonel Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford). He also learns that his name is Jake Lonergan, that a woman named Ella (Olivia Wilde) has a mysterious interest in him - and that he is wanted by the law. But when Dolarhyde arrives at the town jail to claim both his son and Lonergan, strange lights in the sky appear; aliens have arrived to attack Absolution and kidnap several townspeople, including Percy. To rescue their people, Lonergan must forge an uneasy alliance with Dolarhyde and ride out in a posse that includes Ella, the town barkeep Doc (Sam Rockwell), Dolarhyde's right-hand man Nat Colorado (Adam Beach), country preacher Meacham (Clancy Brown), and Emmett (Noah Ringer), the sheriff's grandson whose grandfather (Keith Carradine) is one of the abductees.
It has not escaped my attention that I've been damn generous with the 4-star ratings lately. I do think the summer of 2011 has been pretty awesome, and by year's end I'm betting we'll see some proper commentary on how this has been one of the better cinematic years in recent history. But five 4-starrers in a row is a big stretch - even if two of them aren't summer blockbusters, and one isn't even from a film industry in which "summer blockbuster" means anything - and this is the one that breaks that trend. Three stars doesn't mean I thought it was really bad, but it sure doesn't live up to the standards set by its summer brethren.
Its biggest problem is that it just isn't any fun. For a movie that calls itself Cowboys and Aliens, it sure takes none of the kind of geekish glee that such a premise engenders, instead going for an entirely self-serious approach to both genres. It's almost completely humourless, with not a single clever line or gag. And its action scenes are unimaginative and uninspired. Heck, just off the top of my head I can think of a bunch of scenes that mash up the western and sci-fi in fun ways. Cowboys riding flying horses! Cowboys shooting ray guns! A high noon duel with an alien! Precisely none of these appear in this movie. It's almost as if it thinks a summer blockbuster titled Cowboys and Aliens can be played completely straight.
Even the answer behind the story's central mystery - how Lonergan ended up in the middle of the desert with an alien weapon strapped to his wrist - is uninteresting. And its biggest reveal was already spoiled in its trailer (hint: it has something to do with Ella), and wasn't exactly a huge surprise either way. There's a weird arbitrariness to its plot, and more than once I got the impression that all its big plot points - the posse runs into Lonergan's old outlaw gang, the aliens attack, Indians show up and capture everybody - occur only because the film had no idea how to end the previous scene. There are no less than six names credited on story and screenplay, which is perhaps a miracle that it turned out at least coherent - but, again, dull and uninspired.
It's also a crying shame that it wastes such a talented cast, including minor members like Clancy Brown, Sam Rockwell and Keith Carradine - all of whom ought to belong in a good old-fashioned western, and all of whom have practically nothing to do. Even headliners Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford aren't particularly impressive here; Lonergan simply isn't compelling, and Dolarhyde's characterization flat-out doesn't work. He starts out as a mean old bastard, and Ford seems to be having fun playing against type as a scenery-chewing villain. Then we're asked to believe he's not so bad after all, he's really just a softie deep down - and I'm just not buying it. There's zero chemistry amongst anyone here - not between Ford and Adam Beach, with whom he's supposed to have some kind of fatherly relationship; not between Ford and Noah Ringer, who does not redeem himself for The Last Airbender; and not between Craig and Olivia Wilde, who are supposed to have some half-assed low-key romance.
Let me say again that three stars doesn't mean it's an entirely bad movie. It's competently executed, and the plot more or less makes sense. Its failures are largely in intent rather than execution - because, again, it chooses to be a cowboys-vs-aliens movie that takes itself completely seriously. This does not bode well for Favreau, for whom this film should've been his redemption after an acrimonious split with Marvel Studios over the Iron Man franchise; fact is, the blame for making a slow-moving and dull sci-fi western mash-up can be laid squarely at his feet. And it's already a confirmed flop at the box-office, losing its opening weekend to The Smurfs of all things. Which unfortunately means it'll be a long, long while before we see another western, much less a mash-up western, on our screens again.
NEXT REVIEW: Cars 2
Expectations: Pixar, don't let me down too much