Not Exactly Spaghetti & Meatballs
A Film Review of Cowboys & Aliens
By: Lawrence Napoli
Before getting right into this review I’d like to get something off my chest in regards to the redundant credits some directors assign themselves during the introductory sequences of the films they direct; specifically “A Film By . . .” or “A (insert director here) Film,” only to conclude the opening salvo of text on the screen with “Directed by (insert director here).” Cowboys & Aliens opens on some obscure wilderness, and the first credit the audience sees is “A Jon Favreau Film,” and suddenly my selectively opinionated radar went on high alert. Is this film supposed to be some kind of artsy drama? Has Jon Favreau suddenly been elevated to “marquee” status while taking credit for some transcendent performances by Robert Downey Jr. in some Iron Man films? In my humble opinion those kinds of credits ought to be reserved for the singular efforts of directors without which would preclude the existence of the film production at all. I refer to the writer/director who not only is responsible for the performance on screen, but for the origin of the idea and the evolution of its story. The latter cannot be claimed by Favreau as Cowboys & Aliens is an adaptation by Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman based on the Platinum Studios comic book written by Scott Mitchell Rosenberg. Spielberg, Lucas and Shyamalan are the types of directors deserving of the “Film By” credit, and Jon Favreau is simply not in their league.
As for Cowboys & Aliens, the odd pairing of the western and sci-fi genres may seem interesting enough to yield a hybrid sensation capable of generating some high quality entertainment, but it is not this film. Please indulge me this quick experiment. First, close your eyes for one minute and think about the imagery, lines and stories that make “the western” a western. Second, do the same for sci-fi. Third, take one more minute to think about combining everything you just thought about. Congratulations, you’ve just experienced Cowboys & Aliens thanks to 3 minutes of thinking because nothing you will see in this film will distinguish itself from anything one knows about “cowboy” and “alien” films.
The sole potential of a story like this lies within the “what if” scenario of aliens visiting Earth at an earlier stage in the social/technological evolution of the human race: the Wild West, for instance. Unfortunately for this film, the story contains none of the dramatic complexities innate to the human exposure of a new sentient species (regardless of time frame) which happens to be the engine for the plots of every “alien attack” movie. This plot is dumbed-down to accommodate western stereotypes of the 1870s as well as an unapologetically direct purpose of delivering a steady stream of action without the burden of exposition and detail. This film takes the formula of “Cowboys vs. Indians” and literally replaces “Indians” with “Aliens.” I found this to be a monumental waste of time and completely counter-productive to the very idea in the first place. If an antagonizing force wielding laser guns, flying machines and happens to be two times stronger, faster and larger than humans carries no more consequence than “they’re harder to take down,” then Cowboys & Aliens would be no different from Cowboys & Ghosts, Cowboys & Greek Mythological Gods and Cowboys & Republicans. I sincerely doubt the likes of Harrison Ford can be coaxed off his lounge chair for a film that goes through the motions like Cowboys & Aliens without owing someone behind the scenes a major favor. Then again, Harrison isn’t exactly churning out films at the same rate as Nicholas Cage, and something’s got to pay for the next-generation protein paste that keeps Calista Flockhart walking around without collapsing in on herself. Just kidding, Harrison; we all know you’ve made a sh*t load of money.
All things being equal, this film really needs Harrison Ford’s participation as well as the solid performance he delivers on screen. We all know he just isn’t the same Han Solo or Indiana Jones anymore, but he can still entertain with his newfound proficiency with gruff, old-man ranting and raving. Harrison’s performance breathes some humanity into his character and those he interacts with, which happens to be the polar opposite effect of Mr. Roboto also known as Daniel Craig. Seriously, what has the Bond franchise done to Craig to land his performances so far beneath Layer Cake (2004) and Defiance (2008)? For as much as I admire the man for his washboard abs and 0% body fat, I would respect him that much more as an actor if he could evoke some actual human emotion now and then. Yes, Daniel, you’ve nailed anger and intensity. Can we move beyond that? When I saw that Olivia Wilde was cast for this film, the parallels with the failed hybrid-western, Jonah Hex (2010) began to form in my head as Ms. Wilde, like Megan Fox before her, would be called upon to fill the role of the obligatory “hot babe.” Thankfully, Olivia continues to build off her successful performance in Tron: Legacy (2010) with a very emotive yet empowered portrayal of her character, Ella. Clearly, Olivia Wilde is the sexiest aspect of Cowboys & Aliens, but she really has some fine, pseudo-romantic moments with Daniel Craig on screen. It’s not her fault all she got from him was Mr. Freeze. Lord knows I wouldn’t have any problems falling in love with her for real given the opportunity to gaze into her sapphire eyes.
I recognize that I’ve painted a pretty bleak picture with this review thus far, but Cowboys & Aliens truly wasn’t bad. It’s more like, “ho-hum,” and nothing reflects this sentiment more than the visual effects and action sequences of this film. The character design for the alien CG was acceptable, but a little too reminiscent of the alien design in ID4 (1996). The gunplay was blandly photographed with a static intensity as a nod to Eastwood’s Spaghetti Westerns. The explosions, lasers and pyrotechnics were an excellent change of pace from the uninspired iron work, but also not unique from any of the summer blockbusters of 2011. The climactic battle cut to some very realistic perspective shots of a young boy observing through a spyglass, which was all but copy-pasted from similar binocular perspectives featured in Battle: LA (2011).
All in all, the visual style, like the story and the performances, was average, and “average” just doesn’t cut it with the myriad selection of options amidst the biggest blockbuster summer in recent memory. One would think that such a matter-of-fact title like Cowboys & Aliens is actually feigning commonplace simplicity in order to surprise the audience with an alpha strike of awe and intrigue. Alas, this cinematic adventure literally put some members of the audience to sleep, which is never a good indicator from an action movie. I was expecting to absolutely trash this film because its title couldn’t be less inspiring than The Phantom Menace, but it was good enough to a avoid a universal panning. But if action is what the reader/viewer craves, there are better options at the cinema to choose from at this point in time.