Cowboys & Aliens
Film review by: Witney Seibold
Jon Favreau has now directed several big-budget summer blockbusters, and has proven that he can make a great-looking, well-acted, solid movie with the best of the them. His films all look great, are clearly-shot, and impeccably edited so that all the action leads clearly from one scene to the next. What’s more, he’s very good with actors (seeing as he is also an actor), so the characters are all rich and interesting, and often played by talented people who know how to approach their roles. Favreau also has a deft hand when it comes to special effects, knowing how effects look, and how they serve the material, allowing his story to be in the center, and the practical affects to serve it. Having said all that, I was astonished at how bland “Cowboys & Aliens” was. It was expertly made, well-acted, and it looked fantastic, but it was oddly devoid of personality.
With a title like “Cowboys & Aliens,” which is indeed a genre mashup between westerns and science fiction, I imagine the temptation is to make something campy and weird; I can imagine Alex Winter making a film like “cowboys & Aliens” in the early 1990s, and having it survive as a weird, campy cult film. But What Favreau does instead is a surprisingly straightforward western, complete with grizzled characters, angry vendettas, corrupt landowners, and gunfights, and then adds aliens as the main villain. Replace the aliens with, well, injuns, and the story would be exactly the same.
A mysterious nameless man (Daniel Craig) wakes up in the desert with a strange-looking manacle attached to his wrist, and no memory. He wanders to the closest town where there is some upset between the son of the local cattle rancher, and the townsfolk. The ambiguously wicked Woodrow Dollarhyde (Harrison Ford) is tired of having a layabout son, and seems to rule the town with his wealth. The nameless man also meets the local preacherman (Clancy Brown), and a strange-looking woman with a gunbelt (Olivia Wilde). It’s right at this moment that flying machines appear in the sky, lasso up some of the townsfolk (using actual lassos), and fly away. What the Hell? Now the people must band together, track the kidnappers, and retrieve their people. The kidnappers are aliens. Cool.
I liked that the characters reacted casually, but not knowing of whatwas going on. In most sci-fi films (that is, those set in the modern day), the characters can jibe with meeting aliens because they’ve seen other sci-fi movies with aliens in them. These simple folks from the 1880s don’t know what a spaceship is, and don’t give much thought to the cosmos. They’re just businessmen, and grizzled loners. The screenplay (credited to nine screenwriters, if you include the author of the original comic book), was surprisingly cogent and clever in this regard.
But the film still has some fundamental problems with its tone. I can’t exactly put my finger on any details, but there was something kind of bland, something kind of utilitarian about “Cowboys & Aliens” that left it somewhat disatisfying. It’s like it was so crisp and well-made that there was nothing fun or funky or moving in it. There were indeed cowboys, and they did indeed fight aliens. And that’s it. That’s all it says on the tin, and that’s all it’s gonna do. It’s not that it was perfunctory (which is a grievous crime committed by most middling Hollywood summer films), it’s just that it doesn’t do much to elevate either the western or the sci-fi film to new heights by the mixture.
Perhaps that was the point. Perhaps Favreau wanted to show that a western is going to be universal, even if you include monsters in it. If that’s the case, he proved himself. It’s a pity, then, that he didn’t make a more involving western.
Something for the ladies: There is a scene in which Craig has to spend the night in an overturned riverboat to take shelter from the rain. In the boat, the lights are low, and there is water pouring in conveniently placed rivulets from the ceiling. Craig, in chaps and tight-fitting jeans, and sans shirt, steps up to one of these showers and rubs water all over his well-formed pectoral muscles. The light glistens off of his weathered but powerful body, and he flexes and caresses himself. This scene is practically pornographic.
One last note: Does Olivia Wilde look strange to anyone else? She’s been appearing in many major Hollywood releases of late, so she’s fast approaching it-girl status (or at least flash-in-the-pan status), and I’ve seen her in “TRON: Legacy.” In “Cowboys & Aliens,” her eyes are a little too big, her head a little too round, and is preches on a long, spindly neck and wispy body that doesn’t look like it should be able to stand upright. She looks alien. Which, in this case, may have been the point.