July 31, 2011
The marketers at Universal seemed to know exactly where to hit the target audience for “Cowboys & Aliens” — simplistic but impressive posters, action-packed and flashy trailers. But most important of all was a small title card advertising that this film was from the director of “Iron Man.”
Enough has been mentioned about said director Jon Favreau. But his style — or at least the style Universal banked on getting people to the multiplex — was humor-twinged action with a proficient hand in special effects and an ability to handle powerhouse actors like Robert Downey Jr.
The director plays “Cowboys & Aliens” with a somewhat different hand — one that not many expected and few prefer. He plays it straight and serious, as if the film’s jumbled script could somehow rest on its own storytelling laurels. The simplicity of Universal’s posters comes full circle into a bland and poorly planned action-adventure that feels a lot smaller than it’s meant to.
The narrative is messy. We find Jake Lonergan (Daniel Craig, “Defiance”) alone in the 19th-century desert, amnesic and affixed with a strange, thick metal bracelet on his wrist. He finds his way to the town of Absolution, which is ruled by moneyman Woodrow Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford, “Morning Glory”) and tormented by his little shithead of a kid Percy (Paul Dano, “There Will Be Blood”). The other characters we encounter include a kindly priest (Clancy Brown), a helpless saloon owner (Sam Rockwell, “Conviction”), a stoic sheriff (Keith Carradine, “Peacock”) and a mysterious beauty (Olivia Wilde, “TRON: Legacy”).
Lonergan turns out to be a wanted man with a big bounty on his head. Not remembering his crimes, he discovers his story’s exposition just as slowly as it’s delivered to us. He gets locked up, ponders his troubled past and wonders what to do next.
And then aliens attack.
There’s not much need to say anything more, and before seeing the film, most people probably didn’t know anything beyond the genre-blending concept implied by the title anyway. Lonergan is a badass of action, not words. When people of the town are kidnapped by the alien ships, though, he leads an outing to retrieve them, and thoroughly saves the town from their foreign visitors.
Lonergan’s story is the story of “Cowboys & Aliens,” and the film rightly focuses on him. That said, the script doesn’t leave everyone else alone, giving us so much plot and so many split ends to reconnect by the end of the story that the film has nary a chance of succeeding.
The film is slightly redeemed by Craig, who has his characteristic serious look and James Bond physicality. He is utterly likeable and plays each scene with a subtlety the entire cast and production around him seems to severely lack.
The visuals are also occasionally sumptuous. The collision of fluorescent blue alien light and the wide brown expanse of the desert create moments of gooey special effects goodness, but the Wild West town footage has the unshakable feeling of the archetypal soundstage setup.
And if you’re wondering about the aliens — they’re CGI disgusting, scary, and ruthless. Movie aliens are becoming more and more physically complex, it seems, if the two blockbuster alien films this summer are any indication.
Trying to provide a counterpoint of sorts to the cowboys and Indians concept, “Cowboys & Aliens” tries hard to bring in an outside force and create a situation in which all earthlings can unite. In the end, it has few real statements to make, and is derailed into a muddled series of pointless moments with over-developed and boring supporting characters.
It seemed like a great concept — ripe for the 21st century, a reinvigorating combination of things we’ve seen before — but Favreau ends up finding the worst of each of its genres, resulting in two half-films whose sum is less than its parts.
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