Cowboys and Aliens is a convoluted visual spectacle, marvelous to look at but woefully devoid of entertainment. In throwing out wit, humour and intelligence for meandering action, director Jon Favreau ends up with a noisy, overlong, over-serious mess. There's nothing in this film you haven't seen before, especially if you own an Xbox.
There are cowboys, aliens, James Bond, Indiana Jones and buck naked Olivia Wilde, so what possibly could the superstar writers Damon Lindelof, Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci do wrong? A lot as it turns out - Daniel Craig’s one-note dullard, the oppressive production design and the underwhelming special effects crush this film like a trash compactor. Favreau is gifted with a much bigger budget than he was for the first ‘Iron Man’ film, but here he makes the all-too-common mistake of believing money can substitute for imagination. The uninspired alien design, the cooky spaceship, the corny Old West dialogue, the hilariously pathetic characters, the obligatory naked woman - it feels as though we are immersed in a low budget video game. A game that never seems to end. The biggest frustration is being unable to care about the plot, unless you are content to root for dozens of people whom you can’t give a tinker’s cuss about. The best we get is a spectacularly hamming Harrison Ford, who always seems to have dialogue scribbled on his palm.
For a film that combines two big genres, there isn’t much of a story. We have a man (Daniel Craig) who awakens in an 1873 Arizona desert with a metal bracelet fixed to his wrist. Like Jason Bourne, he has no recollection of who he is or how he got there. He stumbles into a sleepy town where he learns of his identity, and witnesses strange lights attacking the place with devastating death rays and crafts that snatch people with mechanical lassos. Unfortunately, the whole alien abduction sequence is an eye-glazing fiasco which leaves us totally uncaring whether anyone survives the massacre. This is perhaps because the aliens and their ships look hideously unoriginal. The villainous invaders physically appear as, for all intents and purposes, mutant humanoids with stronger than usual strength and just the one emotion. This was the wrong way to go with these creatures, who never seem to pose much threat and, therefore, are giant bores. It doesn't help that their motives, like that of the rest of the characters, are highly sketchy. Even the big finale is a moldy cliché of a science-fiction film without the vital feeling of release from danger.
Cowboys and Aliens is the kind of project that is a dream-come-true for composers, but Harry Gregson-Williams' score neither brings Sci Fi nor Westerns to life. Daniel Craig is supposed to be the classic lone ranger, the stranger, the man with no name, the anti hero we have to have in post modern cinema. But the man has neither wit nor emotion. Equally distracting is his British accent which he frequently drops in.
The silly third-person-shooter style action scene is mildly interesting, but Favreau miscalculates the outcome of his overriding vision by making every action sequence edited into jump cut frenzy. The supporting cast, an excellent lineup of Sam Rockwell, Harrison Ford, Paul Dano, Raoul Trujillo (the villain from ‘Apocalypto’) is absolutely wasted. Favreau clearly wanted to make something more than your average explosion-laced popcorn film, but we expect an explanation to why the aliens invade the Old West when people like Lindelof, Orci and Kurtzman bring us the story.
Cowboys and Aliens is just an inane film that is mostly laughable due to it’s atmosphere of dead-serious reverence. You’re better off watching Tree of Life this weekend.
First published in DNA