A very confused man (Daniel Craig) wakes up in the middle of a rocky plain with a metal bracelet on his left wrist. He knocks out some folks and gets himself a new hat. It’s around 1875, I think, so hats are normal. He goes into town and knees the local strong man’s kid (Paul Dano) in the balls. Then aliens attack and we find out that the bracelet is actually a super-duper weapony thing. These aliens rope up some local yokels and folks want to go out in search of them. This includes Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford) and his sidekick Nat (Adam Beach), Emma (Olivia Wilde), Doc (Sam Rockwell), and some kid (Noah Ringer). Around the first time they get to see an alien up-close is probably around the time they had second thoughts about tracking down their kin. But, then again, these are malevolent aliens—as usual!—so what else is there to do than follow the amnesiac and sexy lady into the jaws of death while also experiencing stirring moments of unity and brotherhood among men.
Cowboys & Aliens (2011) may seem like an aggregate of three or four pathetically trite story arcs stamped onto a mixed-genre concept, but it’s so much more…no it’s just exactly like that. I’ll tell you the first moment I started to worry, and it was early in the proceedings. It was when the screen lit up with this brigade of writing staff. Mark Fergus & Hawk Ostby and Steve Oedekerk on screen story (meaning Ostby and Fergus worked together and Oedekerk was brought on independently to work things out) and—put on your symbolic logic hats—Roberto Orci & Alex Kurtzman & Damon Lindelof and Mark Fergus & Hawk Ostby (remember them) on screenplay all of which is based, apparently, on a comic book. Looking over their credits is interesting. It looks as though the Iron Man (2008) team came up with the story, helped along by the guy who brought us the Thumb movies then some J.J. Abrams/Michael Bay types reworked the screenplay substantially.
Some of you, the types that like to eat Skittles in their grilled cheese sandwiches, may think that’s an awesome set up. All I see is hack-a-thon with their single saving grace being that they’re collaborators who, within their group of ampersands, do a lot of work together. The downside, possibly, is that there isn’t a dramatist in the lot. Nobody, certainly, that gives one the slightest impression of being familiar with the western outside of the tacked-on idea that railroads changed everything. Aliens, they have covered.
That holds true basically throughout the whole movie. Jon Favreau directs this basically as an alien movie. The love of landscapes is not particularly apparent, but boy does he love a photon explosion. That said, it’s relatively fun. The movies just about made back its money at the box office despite the fact that it is high-concept gold with a title unambiguously suited to the purpose. I suspect that the reason for its relative failure—considering that a Michael Bay film can expect to garner three to six times its budget—is that it isn’t nearly fun enough. There’s a lot of sitting around, tracking of alien footprints, and emotional investments taking up dirt-laden explosion time.
The problem is collaboration. Collaboration and compromise almost always means addition. Additional dialogue, additional plot arcs, and additional characters are all in place because everyone getting something is easier than everyone losing something. My inference is that the Daniel Craig character began as a man of virtually no words, but they had to tack on some love interest and that means talking. Either they got Harrison Ford involved or someone liked the character, so Dolarhyde had to be built up which means backstory, which means four emotional connections that have to be built up and sacred head-noddings in acknowledgement of life-savings to be contrived. But this isn’t their first rodeo. They know how to build their transition sentences, so the whole movie works together easily but you still have a very simple story—hero arrives, mission explained, mission accomplished—that has a two hour runtime. This may be a new feature of the big-budget action film considering the Transformers (2007-11) movies all came in at about two and a half hours as did Christopher Nolan’s Batman (2005-12) films.
I have this hollow feeling in my stomach every time I see “Music by Harry Gregson-Williams”. He’s got an impressive list of credits to his name—the movies that is, not the music—even if you have to skip about five movies you’ve never heard of to find one you have. The music he provides is almost predictably forgettable. I mean, say what you like about Howard Shore, but at least the man can come up with a decent theme. I don’t know why I’m hating on the man, he’s a journeyman composing the marches for dreck and above average movies. I’ve got to say something!
If you collect mediocre action flicks that you unaccountably rate as “guilty pleasures”, this one will fit right in. Still, I’d wait for the price to go down.
You know what? I’ve got one more comment. Cowboys & Aliens is a play on “Cowboys and Indians”, right? So wouldn’t you think that something closer to that idea would be to actually place cowboys and aliens in the same world rather than as an invading force to be shooed from Earth? Aliens come down to Earth and start colonizing the West as a part of their expansion policy. The aliens should have been partially sophisticated rather than mere barbarians that tried to parlay with the cowboys (only to betray them later). There’s a commentary there that was missed.