Cowboys & Aliens is no less than the first colossal, epic turd of the Summer of 2011.
How bad can it be? Well, it’s badly written, badly directed, badly cast, badly acted, badly conceived, and in spite of some professional below-the-line work, it’s a bloody mess of a movie.
Truth is, I can’t think of a single redeeming feature of this film… not a bright light in a dark movie horizon that made me smile for a moment, relieving the agony of watching so many skilled people waste their time and mine. If going to the movie theater to see Daniel Craig’s torso or Olivia Wilde’s nipples pushing through a white shirt or Harrison Ford offer up his trademark smirk once, you’ll be satisfied. Otherwise, stay away.
I can’t really explain myself without writing about what it is I saw in the movie, so…
From here on, this is a SPOILER REVIEW. And you should expect SPOILERS in the comments as well.
YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED!
It starts from the beginning. Daniel Craig, who is a great actor, plays The Man With No Brain. He wakes up in the middle of nowhere, is approached by 3 bad hombres, and launches into a feat of action bravado right out of a Hong Kong flick… but somehow manages to not make us care or even get excited.
I had the distinct feeling that Favreau had watched and tried to pay homage to the magnificent opening of Silverado, featuring an injured Scott Glenn and a gun fight with men we never see, that leads to Glenn walking out onto a ridge where we see the magnificence of the west. The differences there were, 1. It was a very clever idea for a fight and though hyperreal in a movie way, believable and followable, and 2. We instantly cared about Glenn’s character, who had no introduction, but was under attack in a way that made him sympathetic.
All we get here is an over-the-top fight scene that would make Bourne or Bond seem subtle and a character who has no character before or after the fight. Great tan, though.
We’re quickly introduced to the cast of good guy townspeople, led by a wasted Clancy Brown, a wasted Sam Rockwell, and a wasted Keith Carradine, each playing cliches and trying hard not to just cash their checks on screen.
Then we are treated to a really bad Paul Dano performance as The Obnoxious Son Of The Guy Who Owns This Town, who behaves in a way that is not menacing, but incredibly stupid. The argument is over his bill at the bar? Really? That is his sin?
Seriously, if he’s a loser punk who has such a chip on his shoulder about nothing, how about writing something for him to do that shows how inept he is… how desperate to get out of his father’s shadow… how chickenshit. SOMETHING! But instead, we get whinny boy and a random shot that happens to hit a deputy and that drives the rest of the first act?
Adding to my agony is Adam Beach, a talented actor who looks like Anthony Breznican after a month of eating pie, as The Indian Who Now Works For The Evil White Man. Oy.
And the dolly shot of Olivia Wilde standing in some alley or something, wearing a thin cotton summer dress that is practically see-through on top and light enough on bottom so it feels like we are supposed to be catching a shadow of her thong, so we are clear that she is The Girl.
At this point, I am seriously thinking that the film seems like a college project with an oversized budget. Too many close-ups. Not very good movement. Actors looking like they are waiting for something to happen. Killing me.
And then there’s Harrison Ford, playing an angry version of Harrison Ford, which leaves him without either an interesting character or a whit of charm. Apparently, the writers saw a lot of Termite Terrace cartoons, which might explain why you introduce a character who is not completely insane by having one of his men tied, on either end, to two animals, who are apparently going to tear him apart. ha ha ha.
You get Harrison Ford to play against type… and instead of writing something smart for him, you go for Snidely Whiplash meets Dick Dastardly with a hint of Wile E. Coyote. He will spend the next two acts snorting and hissing and not being remotely interesting.
Then there’s an alien attack. Why? I still don’t know. Apparently the alien effort to steal that thar gold is working… so why are they riling up the locals by stealing people… people they will do nothing but store in yet another Summer 2011 homage to Eight Legged Freaks?
But that’s not close to the most stupid moment of the story, as the entire tale relies on one of those moments that Ebert & Siskel used to joke about, where someone has to do something so stupid that no one would do it for any other reason than to move the movie along. In this case, it’s an alien who is using Craig and his girlfriend for medical experiments, so the alien takes off his wrist-gun, even though the hands they do surgery with are not the ones they have the guns on, and leaves it sitting next to human Craig, who I guess he thinks is sleeping. Craig grabs it, slaps it on and gets out of there (with inexplicable success). The only thing that didn’t happen was the alien telling Bond that they were going to knock over Fort Knox or wear a bowler hat with a razor sharp rim.
If Craig doesn’t get the wrist-gun, there is no movie. Of course, later, others escape the ship and lose their memories… for a fraction of how long Craig loses his for.
Craig hooks up with his old gang for a minute, mostly so he can get hit, and so he can do the oldest action movie verbal gag there is… “I told you not to call her that!”
The aliens finally become part of the movie and the filmmakers – all of them – make the biggest mistake you can make in these movies. They didn’t figure out a way to establish an even fight… or to simplify things so there is no real fight, just the ominous threat.
Make up your mind! Will a single shot from a Colt kill an alien or not? Shotgun, yes. Sharp stick?
By the time Cute Kid gets to stab an alien in the heart because when the alien unleashes his inner arms, it exposes its heart, it doesn’t matter. It’s just another kill gag, never to be used again.
And will someone please tell me how Harrison Ford’s character ends up finding Daniel Craig in the middle of the alien ship without any help? Come on. I gots to know!
I could go on and on and on about all the things that don’t work and don’t make sense about this movie. One more fave… pretty much the only time in the film when we can’t see through Ms Wilde’s shirt… is when she pulls herself out of a river. But when she’s dry, all bets are off. (Where, by the way, did she get skin-tight men’s clothing to wear in the third act of the film?)
I kind of feel back for Olivia Wilde, who has been reduced to a mannequin in yet another big movie. She gets to do more acting on any single episode of House. Can she be a movie star? Can’t tell from either of these movies. She is beautiful. Shes a professional actor. But if she really needs to reduce herself to deep throating her way to stardom – currently rumored to be taking up the Linda Lovelace role abdicated by Lindsay Low-Esteem – I think that’s a shame. (I also think she is a terrible choice. She may be willing to be naked, but I have no sense that she can play the kind of self-loathing and debasement for which the role calls.)
I can’t say I hated this film because it rally wasn’t bad enough/good enough to hate. It simply fails at every turn.
Even the great Matty Libatique… the look of the film is all over the bloody place. Some moments are better than others, but the inconsistency is bizarre on a film like this. It’s not Aronofsky pushing the edge with intelligence. It’s “that sounds cool.” “That sounds cool too.” “How about we try this?” And this feels like Favreau’s approach to the entire film. It’s a bunch of gags… a bunch of ideas… a bunch of characters… that are disconnected in virtually every way possible.
Just think of the idea… Cowboys vs Aliens… cool. But it’s like they completely forgot what was cool about it as they layered more and more crap on top of it. Either that or they were so arrogant that they thought they were above the boundaries of drama and could flip every idea inside out and get away with it. Only geniuses can do that. Sir, I have known geniuses. And…
Speaking of geniuses, here is another Summer 2011 movie that has Spielberg in the credits and reminds us how much better a director he is than any of these pretenders. He brings heart while other bring “more cool shit.” He can make the simple moments sing. You care about his characters. You hate his villains.
You want the easy fix? Act One: Amnesia. It’s a real western. Act ends with the first alien attack. Act Two. The alien attack reminds the hero of who he is and unites the evil and the good. Everyone rallies their resources. Act Three. The alien vulnerability becomes apparent, but the plan to get at it is hard, but clear. The battle for mankind’s existence begins.
You know what we know about these aliens? Virtually nothing! They want gold… and we only know that because Wilde’s character is also an alien… who never shows her natural self. Yes, the movie doesn’t even have the guts to have a human care about an alien after she walks out of a fire wearing her naked human suit. But there is no contact, really. So all the aliens are are giant grasshoppers, cousins to the District 9 aliens, who want to kill you.
One of the great head-turners is Ford, reconciled with his idiot son, becoming a generous loving dad in his last scene… even though we see no real change in the son. Huh? Couldn’t we have two lines of dialogue about how the experience of being probed changed his perspective… maybe even made him a do-gooder or some other kind of actual character?
But it sure was loud!