Another summer weekend brings another comic-book adaptation to the big screen, and this week’s Cowboys & Aliens materialized with quite a pedigree: directed by Iron Man and Iron Man 2‘s Jon Favreau, produced by (among others) Brian Grazer and Ron Howard, and executive produced by Steven Spielberg. So how can a movie from that brain trust be so lacking in imagination? After the initial idea of the mash-up, the movie – like its taciturn lead – doesn’t have much to say about either genre.
Jake Lonergan (Daniel Craig) awakens in the desert of Arizona in 1873 literally as a man with no name: He has no memory of who he is or how he got there. However, he does have an unfamiliar metal bracelet clamped to his left wrist. At the nearest town, Lonergan attracts the attention of enigmatic beauty Emma (Olivia Wilde), who senses something off about Lonergan and his anachronistic jewelry. Then Sheriff Taggart (Keith Carradine) identifies Lonergan as a wanted outlaw. When Taggart attempts to ship Lonergan out of town along with the ne’r-do-well son of the local cattle baron, the group is confronted by a furious daddy Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford). However, their standoff is interrupted by strange flying machines that kidnap a number of townsfolk and nearly kill the rest – except that Lonergan’s bracelet suddenly reveals itself as an alien weapon capable of shooting down the fighters. Dolarhyde enlists Lonergan and Emma to help him rescue his son and the rest of the kidnap victims from the unearthly menace.
As 21st-century viewers trying to enjoy C&A, we have to put ourselves in the mind of 19th-century folks who are unfamiliar with the idea of flight, let alone creatures from deep space. While we may shrug and think, “OK, they’re up against aliens,” the cowboys and townsfolk settle for calling the extraterrestrials “demons” and fearing their vanished loved ones are bound for some hellish dinner table.
The script is credited to Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman, Damon Lindelof, Mark Fergus, Hawk Ostby and Steve Oedekerk – and shockingly doesn’t contain a single original idea – even the genre-mixing idea itself is based on Scott Mitchell Rosenberg’s comic books. If ever there was a case of “too many cooks” spoiling the stew, this screenplay is it! It doesn’t take long to establish personalities and relationships because every single character is a type, from the brooding antihero to the greedy land baron to the tenderfoot businessman to the plucky female to the father figures who have trouble expressing affection. The emotional arc for every character is clearly set up, telegraphed and then fulfilled in the most obvious way. Similarly, the entire movie is a paint-by-numbers affair, filled with foreshadowing, and no one colors outside the lines. Will the bigot learn a lesson about tolerance? Yes. Can enemies mend fences and work together against a common enemy? Si. After one character makes a big deal about handing another a knife, will that blade come into play at a key moment in a future scene? You bet! None of the characters does anything even remotely surprising or unexpected. And, to top it all off, C&A dances right up to the edge of being offensively stereotypical by featuring not only noble, forgiving Apaches, but a mystical healing ritual complete with tom-toms and chanting.
Despite the script weaknesses, C&A is not a boring or particularly slow-moving film; it’s just that the screenplay is so predictable the viewer may become frustrated waiting for the movie to mosey where it’s going. Favreau actually does an admirable job of maintaining a narrative pace in such an episodic tale, and there is entertainment value in watching the story unfold. I did, however dislike the way the photography by frequent Favreau collaborator Matthew Libatique. (I don’t care if was nominated for an Oscar for shooting Black Swan!) When a viewer stops and notices the cinematography, something is wrong. Many of Libatique’s images are (intentionally) almost obscured by dust and come off looking hazy, and I hated the oversaturated colors used when the hero was carrying someone through the sagebrush. On the plus side, however, the capture of the humans was done very well, with the camera zooming in on the helpless victims as they are plucked off horses or yanked from the embrace of loved ones and reeled in through the sky like fish wriggling at the end of a line.
As I suggested, there are sections that are fun to watch, and the movie is really about Ford’s crusty Dolarhyde more than Craig’s sour Lonergan. Despite being the nominal villain, Dolarhyde has the biggest dramatic arc, and gets the most sympathetic characterization. Craig’s Lonergan spends most of the movie on a quest to find himself, but he (and the audience) never gets deeper than the alien-specific memories he recovers. This is disappointing, because as an outlaw-turned-citizen, Lonergan had potential to be complex and interesting, instead of just another Man of Few Words.
Speaking of interesting, Wilde is so unbelievably gorgeous that she seems to be from another planet herself; not always a good thing for the story. As the only female character of note, Wilde’s Emma consistently diverts attention from whatever else is happening onscreen. Luckily, Emma is central to the story, not merely eye candy. And, as big a Sam Rockwell fan as I am, it’s nice to see him sit back and take a true supporting role for a change, and not work so hard to steal scenes.
The creature effects were fine, though the animatronics used in close-ups were more convincing than the CGI employed in long shots. I really liked the alien flyers spewing exhaust trails of black smoke; a small touch that added a lot of verisimilitude.
After all is said and done there’s plenty of room for a sequel, but I reckon this will be the last roundup for Cowboys & Aliens.