Review: Cowboys and Aliens (2011)

The Thinker by Rodin

I am guessing the conversation in the producer’s office for this movie went something like this:

Producer #1: Movies with space aliens are always hot at the box office. Let’s make another one of those.
Producer #2: I don’t know. It’s been done so many times. It’s impossible to find a new premise. Maybe we should make an old fashioned western instead.
Producer #1: Nah, not a good idea. Cowboys are assumed to be gays these days. I mean, what about Brokeback Mountain?
Producer #2: Man, I got a ton of people with deep pockets itching to say they produced something. We got the means; all we need is the movie, man!
Producer #1: Wait a minute: what about cowboys and aliens? I don’t think that’s been done before.
Producer #2: Great idea! It’s box office gold!

The movie Cowboys & Aliens sure seems like a producer’s amalgamation. As for producers, it has a ton: six executive producers, four co-producers and seven regular and boring producers. All but one or two of them were needed for one important reason only: as a source of cash for financing the film, which was doubtlessly expensive, the price for which was their names in the credits. Just to make sure it didn’t quickly flame out, it was released as a Dreamworks project, and thus comes with Stephen Spielberg’s imprimatur. Long gone from theaters, but available on DVD, the movie is as good an excuse as any to pop a bag of microwave popcorn and sink into the loveseat in front of the wide screen TV for a couple of hours.

Selecting director Jon Favreau must have seemed a safe bet. After all, he directed both Iron Man movies. To improve the odds even more, the film includes the new James Bond (Daniel Craig, as Jake Lonergan), Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford, as Woodrow Dolarhyde) and the original Kung Fu man himself (Keith Carradine, as Sheriff John Taggart).

Creating a screenplay must have proven quite a problem, as no less than five authors claim credit for it, and three others claim credit for the story. Scott Mitchell Rosenberg, who is also listed as one of the producers, apparently was the creator of the comic book on which the movie is based. In short, Cowboys & Aliens shows all the signs of being an imperfect amalgamated work of art. You will probably feel the same way after completing this 119-minute movie.

I bet you can guess its plot: cowboys will encounter aliens, and not the peaceful The Day the Earth Stood Still kind, but the mean, ornery kind. The kind that likes to kidnap Westerners and lusts after gold the way vampires lust after fresh blood. They are suitably creepy and slimy and come with two sets of appendages, including extra slimy inner arms that open up from inside their chests. They have a mother ship busy mining for gold and fighter jets that like to go around a blow up western towns while kidnapping local townies, generally the more attractive ones.

Jake Lonergan finds himself waking up on the Arizona steppe like he had been in a bar fight to end all bar fights, with a wound in his side and with a funky contraption around one arm made of metal and which flashes when aliens are near. He conveniently cannot remember his name or anything else, but he does manage to stumble into a troubled western town to clean up. There he encounters Percy Dolarhyde (Paul Dano), the hotheaded son of the local cattle baron, who knows his pappy (played by Harrison Ford) will bail him out no matter how much he abuses the townies. Yep, this is the meanest part of the Wild West, or at least territorial Arizona, and the local sheriff has his hands full, in part because Lonergan is a wanted man.

The good guys and bad guys would be content to beat up on each other but instead they have to clumsily deal with space aliens, who seem to be target practicing on Dolarhyde’s cattle. Needless to say everyone is pretty freaked out, but Dolarhyde the senior (Ford) finds the timing bad for doing what he really wants, which is beating the crap out of Lonergan for past grievances. Instead the two make common purpose to find the aliens, free the townies that were captured, hopefully kill all the aliens and blow their spaceship to bits as well. Fortunately, they have Ella Swanson (Olivia Wilde), a younger and shapely woman who seems to dote on the unavailable Lonergan, and whom we eventually discover is actually a being from another planet. She knows what these aliens are all about and, more importantly, where their Achilles Heal is. She needs Lonergan, Dolarhyde and their assortment of ruffians and posses (not to mention a local Apache tribe) to defeat them. Fortunately, the aliens are not immune to gunfire, and their spacecraft doesn’t react well to dynamite.

Did I give away too much? Not really. The title of the movie largely gives the plot away. And since conflict is implied by the title, it only remains to be seen if your interest can be sustained. Favreau does his best with the material, as do Craig, Ford and the rest of the cast. The special effects certainly are really nice, if par for the course these days. Unfortunately, acting heroics cannot substitute for a plot that is not terribly interesting and for characters that you don’t care about very much.

So the answer to the question: is a movie with cowboys and aliens together a good idea? Well, not so much, at least not this iteration. Perhaps it will be tried again someday and it will work. It doesn’t work here. If you want to say you’ve seen every movie with space aliens in it, you had better see this one. Otherwise, Cowboys & Aliens is more likely to have you wanting to slip your ten-gallon hat over your eyes for a two-hour siesta. It won’t take you long to figure out how this movie will play out, which means that they should have added your name to the list of screenwriters too.

2.8 on my four-point scale.

Rating: ★★¾☆ 

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