There’s not all that much going on beneath the surface of Jon Favreau’s Cowboys and Aliens, which is probably too much to ask of any movie actually called Cowboys and Aliens anyway. Still, it would have been nice to see a revisionist take on this mash-up of two stale genres. In the past couple years, we’ve enjoyed Rango and The Book of Eli, which, in their unique ways, took on the tropes of the typical western and turned them on its head (The Book of Eli loses points for a very silly ending). Even Joel and Ethan Coen had a crack at the genre with True Grit, and although it wasn’t much of a game changer, the film was a whole lot of fun and still carried the existential baggage that comes with any Coen brothers’ flick. Meanwhile, cinemas have been flooded with movies about invading alien armies of late, and you’d have to go back to 2009’s District 9 to see one make any attempt to subvert that cinematic cliché (stopping off, regrettably, at Skyline, Battle: Los Angeles and Transformers: Dark of the Moon along the way). It wasn’t unreasonable to expect Favreau, working off a well-respected graphic novel, would at least provide something that felt fresh. Cowboys and Aliens does not feel fresh. But, it does feature cowboys fighting aliens, and sometimes that’s all you really need.
The first act is promising. Daniel Craig stars as one of the grizzled eponymous cowboys; he wakes up in the middle of the desert with no memory of who he is, where he came from, or why there is a shiny iron bracelet on his wrist. As he soon discovers when threatened by a couple of wannabe bounty hunters, he’s fast on his feet and shockingly good at taking out enemies. This feller weren’t no saloon-owner in his previous life. He arrives in a desolate town in New Mexico (circa the late 1800s), run by cattle-rancher Dolarhyde (an even grizzlier Harrison Ford) and his reckless son Percy (Paul Dano). Sheriff Taggart (Keith Carradine) recognises ‘The Man With No Name’ from a ‘wanted’ poster in his office, and informs the stranger that he does have a name; it’s Jake Lonergan, and he’s a criminal with a history of arson and ‘mayhem’. Before Lonergan can be carted off to face the judge, a fleet of the titular aliens fly into town, blowing up buildings, abducting townsfolk, and just generally bothering everyone. Suddenly, Lonergan – whose bracelet has the power to shoot down these invaders – isn’t their biggest threat but rather their best asset. Dolarhyde, Taggart, barkeep Doc (Sam Rockwell), preacher Meacham (Clancy Brown) tracker Nat (Adam Beach) and a mysterious young lady named Ella (the always engaging Olivia Wilde) form a posse to hunt down these otherworldly ‘demons’, with Lonergan and his alien-killing arm-piece leading the charge.
By this point in the film, it has become clear that Favreau is not interested in any of the wisecracking jibes featured front-and-center in his Iron Man films. This is a much more serious affair; not necessarily stone-faced, but perhaps a little bit joyless. The picture’s visual palette doesn’t even evoke his super-slick Marvel adaptations. Favreau’s DOP Matthew Libatique makes Cowboys and Aliens look grimy and dirty, without resorting to the fake (and lame) scratches seen in recent exploitation flicks such as Machete. Again, this is all fine, especially during the tone-setting opening half hour. It’s only during the second act – when this rag-tag bunch traverse the desert – that the pace of the film practically shudders to a halt, and you begin to crave some fun. Although the cast is committed throughout and the film’s finale is suitably action packed, that limp middle section is completely deflating. The screenwriters – of which there are approximately one thousand – should have recognised the complete lack of conflict, action and character moments at the film’s core, and Favreau should have known that the script was not doing his picture’s already-staid atmosphere any favours.
Maybe it was a little bit dismissive to claim there isn’t much “under the surface” of Cowboys and Aliens. Yes, the characters are all western archetypes, and the sci-fi villains (as freaky looking as they are) aren’t all that different to those we’ve seen before (and their motives for Earthly domination are pretty questionable). But, as the cowboys – comprised of enemies – team up, and eventually accept the help of Apache Indians and a gang of outlaws, we’re reminded of the communal power of a common threat. Not that Favreau does much with that thread, but hey, it’s something. Nonetheless, the 12-year-old in me can’t resist scenes in which the always cool, calm and collected Craig – dressed in his full wild west get-up – whips out a six-shooter and plugs away at a nasty extra-terrestrial. Call me a sucker, but as far as appealing film imagery goes, that’s an easy win.
Cowboys and Aliens arrives in Australian cinemas August 18, 2011.