I feel a little silly griping that a summer blockbuster entitled Cowboys & Aliens turned out to be disappointingly silly. On the other hand, I had good reason to expect a much different caliber of movie. Namely every interview with its stars and creators that I’d read in recent weeks.
Again and again Daniel Craig, Harrison Ford and director Jon Favreau pointed out to journalists how key an artistic decision it was to play this genre mash-up straight. For example, in Entertainment Weekly:
EW: “Whose idea was it to make it a more serious, deadpan alien-invasion film?”
JF: “Ron Howard…That’s one of the things he did.”
DC: “So we all decided to tell a story. A journey of redemption…So we just played the reality of it.”
Take this premise and treat it as camp, satire or parody, they told anyone who’d listen, or read, and you’ve got a totally different sort of picture. One they claimed to have no interest in making. But wound up making anyway.
Things start out promisingly enough with Craig riding into a small frontier town with a hunk of high tech something-or-other on his wrist and zero memory as to how he got it, who he is or where he’s been. He’s a 21st century version of the Man With No Name.
Things go downhill in a hurry though as we come to realize the townsfolk are the handiwork of the Writing Team With No Imagination. No fewer than five scribes contributed to the screenplay and the best they could come up with was a parade of oater clichés: The gun-toting preacher (Clancy Brown), an understaffed sheriff (Keith Carradine), a mild-mannered doctor/saloon keeper (Sam Rockwell), a barroom beauty (Olivia Wilde), a Native American cowhand (Adam Beach), a ruthless cattle baron (Ford) and so on.
Craig’s character is about to be taken into custody (his face is recognized on a Wanted poster) when a squadron of insect-shaped spaceships suddenly descends from the heavens zapping and bombing random targets before lassoing various bystanders and yanking them into the night.
Here’s where the filmmakers really blew it. If they indeed had played it straight, something genuinely fascinating and original would’ve happened next: We would have observed human beings who have no concept of space travel struggling to comprehend what they’d just witnessed. Can you imagine the emotional and psychological possibilities?
Well, you’ll have to because Favreau and company are firmly stuck in comic book gear and don’t go anywhere near there. Instead, a posse is formed. Craig and Ford–who essentially runs the town–put their differences aside and saddle up to lead a gaggle of locals on a search for the abducted.
Remember that bracelet? It turns out that Craig’s character had occasion to lift it from the mothership (long story) and it’s designed to blow up anything and everything extraterrestrial. Now why would the extraterrestrials bring such a thing? It is, after all, the only weapon which gives the human race a fighting chance for survival. Otherwise this war of the worlds would’ve been waged with Winchesters and bows and arrows. And why would they bring only one?
The more pressing question, of course, is how a movie whose producers include Ron Howard and Steven Spielberg ended up such a snooze with regard to its intergalactic visitors. Forget for a moment that we’re told they’ve come to mine gold–exsqueeze me? Far more inexplicable is the fact that they’re as underdeveloped and generic as space creatures get. Think Cocoon, E.T. and the rest of the pair’s distinguished sci-fi oeuvre. Compared with those inspired encounters, this doesn’t even come close.