Review: Cowboys & Aliens

I wonder if this thing could write me into a better movie...
I love a gritty Western. I also love a great alien movie. Putting them together just seems like a very natural fusion, like the salted caramel of fiction. So when I first saw the trailer for Cowboys & Aliens sometime ago, I about wet myself. And that was even before I saw that Daniel Craig was in it. I also figured that since it was in the hands of the guy who made Iron Man, we were golden.

Boy, was I just setting myself up for a broken heart. 

Let's first talk about how the movie begins, because that was the good part, with a dirty Jake Lonergan (Daniel Craig) sitting up in a desert with no idea where or who he is. He also has this weird bracelet on his arm, whose purpose is pretty evident on any number of the movie's posters. (NON-SPOILER ALERT: It shoots holes into aliens n'shit). He quickly disarms some bounty hunters in that standard Bond-like badass fashion that we can expect from Daniel Craig. This seems promising. 

Flash forward to the failing gold mining town of Absolution, full of all the requisite archetypes (wise country preacher, gruff town sheriff, affable barkeep, powerful rancher with a spoiled idiot son). Turns out Lonergan is a wanted man, and even though he can't remember his crimes as a stage coach robber, he's about to get hauled off to prison anyway. That is until alien drone ships start dropping bombs all over the place and kidnapping people by wrapping cables around them and zipping them off through the air to wherever. It's at this point that Lonergan finds out what all that wrist bracelet of his can really do, and he accompanies the remaining survivors on a "harrowing adventure" (notice my ironic quotation marks) to get their townfolk back. Immediately after that, the story starts slamming on the brakes and veering out of control, and it never quite finds its way again.

In fact, the entire movie reads like one two-hour-long anticlimax. And there is absolutely no reason in the world, with this formula and with these actors, that this should be so. But it is. Trust me, it is. 

There's nothing quite so disappointing as seeing good onscreen talent going to waste on a terrible script. This is especially so with Harrison Ford, who first begins as a brutal tyrant and at some point becomes the honorable old man hero without any of the character development that makes such a journey believable. The same could almost be said of Daniel Craig, whose character is so under-developed, joyless, and monotone I had trouble caring about him. A better script would have more skillfully fine-tuned the whole "brutal silent type with a heart of gold" thing (see: Daniel Craig in Casino Royale). Instead, I was just forced to admire how mighty fine he looks in a cowboy hat and a pair of chaps. Not that there is anything inherently wrong with that, but a man of Craig's talents deserves better material. 

And maybe that's the problem with Cowboys & Aliens. It wastes every opportunity it has to thrill and engage its audience, and instead combines too many things and underbakes them all. As a regular Western, it might have been damn good. It would have been allowed to breathe and really explore the relationship between the lead characters. Maybe if they'd been blowing up something other than aliens, I would have been able to enjoy all its good Westerny elements instead of wondering why the stupid aliens look like the love children of cave trolls from Lord of the Rings and the Alien Queen from Ripley's universe. 

I later learned this film had something like eight writers, and it took a decade to get the concept off the ground. These are never great signs. But it's also a damn shame that Jon Favreau couldn't have overseen it with all the skill he showed on Iron Man, though it was clear in Iron Man 2 that his tendency to love himself too much could get the best of his judgment. I have a message for ya, Jon. You might wanna get control of your ego a bit. A couple more movies like this, and people will start mentioning you in the same breath as M. Night Shyamalan when they lament directors who had so much promise before they were swallowed whole by their own bullshit. 

Grade: C

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