I love anything with aliens, but what I love even more is an original take on anything with aliens. I also love me some Jon Favreau; so, naturally, I was stoked for this genre bender. But my months of anticipation quickly fizzled as I found myself looking at my watch thirty minutes after the lights dimmed. I blame the same Hollywood laziness that sabotaged Green Lantern and will continue to ravage the box office until studios dedicate more time and money to story development. It’s the sad tinseltown tale of a talented cast wasted on sloppy storytelling. I did enjoy some aspects, however. Setting an alien invasion in the old west made for a funky-fresh tone that was consistent throughout. The spaceships were surprisingly un-cheesy, and the action sequences were, in many ways, exactly what you’d expect and want to see out of such a film. And yes–Daniel Craig is still a badass.
The film drops us into the world of Jake Lonergan (Daniel Craig), a stoic, ass-kicking cowboy who awakes with no memory and a funny contraption attached to his wrist. Jake is on a mission to avenge his lady-friend (who mysteriously vanished) and, well, get his memory back. Upon entering the nearby town of Absolution, he receives a cold (and violent) welcome, particularly from the iron-fisted Colonel Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford). Along the way he runs into the clairvoyant Ella Swenson (Olivia Wilde), who claims to know where he came from and what he must do. But when “demons” from above blow the town to bits and abduct many of its residents, Dolarhyde quickly (too quickly, for my taste) turns a corner, realizing that Jake and his bracelet may be their only hope.
My greatest beef with our protagonist Jake is his lack of heart (or any emotion whatsoever). All he does is kick ass, and he can’t remember why he does it. He lacks the charisma and humanity of a Jason Bourne, a James Bond (a la Daniel Craig) or a Tony Stark. The rest of the characters in this film seem to follow suit and don’t give us any reason to love them, either. Harrison Ford’s character is a racist sheriff with a prick of a son he defends unconditionally. Olivia Wilde’s character is super weird, to be blunt, and she never really explains who she is or where she came from. On top of it all, each character’s arc is unearned and awkwardly imposed upon them. I would have loved to see a camaraderie develop between the two strong male leads, when in fact there is little depth to their dialogue or relationship development to speak of.
But the real flaw with Cowboys and Aliens lies in its structure. The first half of the movie is all set-up with minimal spikes. We don’t see the aliens until practically half the movie is over. Yes, Ridley Scott’s Alien did this, but Alien takes us on a tension-filled, nail-biting journey, leading up to a reveal of the terrifying, face-sucking extra terrestrials. Cowboys and Aliens throws you in the middle of the action then hangs you out to dry on a meandering path through the desert. Too much time is spent on half-cooked, tangential subplots as the humans search for the alien craft (with little threat from the fearsome creatures during the middle stretch of the film). Overall, it was a major let down in my book but certainly an option for those seeking a genre-bending, popcorn romp through the old west.