Review: Favreau's 'Cowboys & Aliens' is One Part Dull, One Part Tired
by Jeremy Kirk
July 28, 2011
The level of interest in the dull and drab Cowboys & Aliens begins to taper off extremely early in the film. After white on black titles, we are introduced to Daniel Craig's awaking Jake Lonergan, a man who has no memory of who he is but finds himself with a strange mechanical device strapped to his left wrist. The desert surrounding him is shot with a dingy dryness by director Jon Favreau, an arid and dusty landscape that calls to reference the grungy spaghetti Westerns of the 1960s. But soon after, Lonergan finds himself in the middle of a standoff with three men, three men he takes down with little effort, and proceeds to the nearest town where he looks for answers about his past.
Not long after this the alien drone ships arrive, abducting citizens by roping them up as they pass overhead. It's up to Lonergan and a handful of townsfolk, including local cattle baron Woodrow Dolarhyde, played by Harrison Ford, to track down the alien ships and find their loved ones.
It's called Cowboys & Aliens, and that name is quite literal. The title is its premise, a cinematic aspect that seemed to peak and die with Snakes on a Plane. But it didn't have to be as such. Aside from the very interesting premise that arises from such a title, Cowboys & Aliens, a Summer blockbuster, could have hit an excitement level that forced your interest to keep up. It could have been both a sweeping entry into the Western genre while still allowing itself to be a highly entertaining alien invasion movie. Sadly, it ends up being neither one. Instead any fun and adventure that should have been cooked into this turkey gets swept away with the dust of the opening sequence, and all you want is for everyone, not just the aliens, to go home.
Favreau and crew—all six screenwriters included—don't seem to know where they wanted to inject that shot of adrenaline. It could have come at any point. When Lonergan stands up to Percy Dolarhyde, Woodrow's truculent son played by Paul Dano. It could have come when we're introduced to Woodrow, a rather unsympathetic man himself who could have filled in as an interesting secondary antagonist to the aliens for Lonergan. It could have even come from the imagery of alien ships chasing after men on horseback. Okay, that image is actually kind of cool in execution, too. Instead, once the aliens carry off with their cargo - coincidentally, one member of each family - everyone teams up for the greater good. The animosity between any human character raises back up here and there, but it never amounts to anything.
And from here, Cowboys & Aliens goes into a wash-rinse-repeat cycle that has the newly formed posse running into sporadic detours on their journey, only to be saved and put back into the fire by conveniently placed alien attacks. The attacks themselves are decently shot. Favreau is no stranger to shooting action, but there's no suspense, no edge-of-your-seat excitement that ever comes from any predicament. That's even after we've established that these characters can die.
It's probably that we simply don't care. Lonergan doesn't know his past. We learn through flashbacks—also conveniently timed—who he is along with him, but the care is never put into the character from either the screenwriters or Craig himself who appears to be zoning out much of the time. Once the mystery of who he is and how ended up where we are introduced to him is fully revealed, we've moved on from caring, especially since it's about here the ridiculous exposition kicks in.
Exposition is a tricky beast to take down as it is, but the lazy screenwriting found here doesn't even seem to be trying to hide its awkwardness. It all comes from one character, a character who conveniently - there's that word again - knows all but chooses until just the right time to reveal all. Every time this character opens their mouth in the back half of the film, it only serves to relay unnecessary information to the other character and to the audience.
But even clunky exposition and tedious characters can work their way into an exciting adventure movie. Unfortunately, hardly anyone involved in Cowboys & Aliens seems to be having fun. Ford growls as he's been doing in every movie for the past 10 years. There are moments here and there where he and Craig give each other looks that say something without dialogue. Those moments are slightly antic. Sam Rockwell appears to be the only member of the cast who is enjoying himself through and through, and though he's playing an ancillary character, you almost yearn for the moments he comes on screen.
The creature design, much like the rest of the movie, seems piecemeal from about a dozen other alien movies. They are somewhat scary at first, the few moments we only get small glimpses of them in the dark. By the third act, they're running out in broad daylight for all to see and for all to be disappointed in, but we'll let you experience that on your own.
And that disappointment carries on and on in just about every aspect of Cowboys & Aliens. A Western film that seems finite—not even broad shots of the landscape can strike the necessary boundless chord—and an alien invasion film that feels stale and lumbering—the motivation behind the invasion is head-slapping awful—it plods along with the same pedestrian momentum brought on by the opening white on black title cards. To that end, at least Cowboys & Aliens plays its poker hand early, never teasing you of something greater and not following through on it. Instead, all we have is an interesting title that calls to mind an equally interesting premise and the boring execution that follows.
Jeremy's Rating: 5 out of 10