I wrote a lot of great things last week about Captain America, and I still maintain that it is an absolutely perfect piece of popcorn entertainment: tightly paced, well cast, and, most importantly, well written. Captain America represents everything that’s great about summer movies. Cowboys and Aliens is everything wrong about them.
Anytime a live action film has more than two writers credited to it, viewers should be worried. Too many cooks in the kitchen can result in a disastrous stew. Cowboys and Aliens has five. It took five people to try and cobble together this hunk of junk, and in the end it never gets off the ground. Two of the names credited are Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci, the screenwriters behind Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen and other similar garbage. That isn’t a good sign.
The film begins with Daniel Craig as Jake Lonergan (get it? Lonergan?) waking up in the dessert with no memory of who he is or where he comes from. A mysterious metal bracelet is on his wrist, and he can’t get it off. He eventually stumbles in the mysterious town of Absolution, where Colonel Dolarhyde (played by Harrison Ford), a mysterious cattle baron runs the show. Dolarhyde and Lonergan have a mysterious past conflict, but before it’s settled aliens attack, stealing people from the town, and the two men must join forces to get the townspeople back.
You may have noticed I used the word “mysterious” a lot in that previous paragraph. You may have subconsciously wished I’d get a thesaurus, bothered by my reliance on that word. That same mental twitch is what I experienced during the film’s entirety. This is a film that plays all the character motivations extremely close to the chest, relying on mystery to get viewers hooked and itching for answers. But after two hours of not knowing specifics about any of the characters or why they do what they do, I was just bored.
A basic concept of storytelling is conflict. One establishes conflict by putting two characters in a room that want different things and letting them openly seek those different things. Cowboys and Aliens fails this very basic concept. By keeping everything a secret, we never get a reason to care, we just get Ford and Craig putting on their surliest faces and posturing. It gets old real fast. These two actors are only good when they have something truly great to work with, and there is absolutely nothing great about Cowboys and Aliens.
The film doesn’t even have the common courtesy to give viewers something cool to look at. The spaceships are the typical breed, all lights and shiny metal with no interesting designs, and the aliens have quite possibly the stupidest physical flaw I’ve seen in any movie, ever. When they raise their arms their internal organs are on full display. How does any creature evolve with those specifications?
With a title like Cowboys and Aliens, you can go one of two ways: a completely over the top comedy action film or an intense genre piece that doesn’t appeal to everyone but means a lot to those who get it. Director Jon Favreau does neither. He simply shoots for the middle of the road in order to appeal to the lowest common denominator. This is Applebees cinema, meant to draw in those who watch “Two and a Half Men” and “NCIS.” Unfortunately, it doesn’t even succeed at that.