Despite at least one enticing trailer, it wasn't screened by press deadlines. Still, it had to be better than the last time Harrison Ford met extraterrestrials, right? Right?
Cowboys & Aliens
WW Critic's Score: 66
Movies make it so easy sometimes: “You have to stop thinking,” Olivia Wilde tells Daniel Craig toward the climax of Cowboys & Aliens, and that's clearly the track director Jon Favreau took in naming this sci-fi/Western mash-up. Yeah, he's just preserving the title of the graphic novel the film is based on, but if there were ever a situation justifying the use of some creative license, it would be changing the name to something a bit less ridiculously literal; it's like retaining Iron Man's original title if the comic had been called Charismatic Prick in a Flying War Suit.
Keeping the book's laughably expository title shows just how enamored Favreau is with the concept of playing Space Invaders in the old West. Who can blame him? An alien invasion set in a more primitive time period is such a lavish idea, it's surprising Hollywood hasn't done it more often. But a cool premise can only carry a movie so far, and Favreau misjudges how far the concept can carry Cowboys & Aliens. It's a shame, too, because as a director he's already given us fresh, exciting takes on the superhero flick (the first Iron Man) and the Christmas movie (Elf). He had far more to work with here than he did going into both of those films, and yet the end result—while still being decent summer entertainment—is disappointingly tepid.
It's not a case of two conflicting parts making an unsatisfying whole, so much as those separate parts not being very satisfying to begin with. For a film we haven't really seen before, Cowboys & Aliens ends up feeling awfully familiar, and that's because it's stuffed with clichés from both of the genres its purporting to fuse. A horde of anonymous extraterrestrials come to the American southwest circa the late 1800s to plunder its resources and, just for the hell of it, abduct and probe the citizens of a tiny frontier town. Cue the hasty assemblage of a ragtag rescue party—the gruff cattle magnate (Harrison Ford), the whiskey-swilling priest (Clancy Brown), the wimpy barkeep (Sam Rockwell), the mysterious woman (Wilde), the steely-eyed outsider (Craig) and, why the heck not, a kid (Noah Ringer) and a dog—that sets off to find their fellow townspeople and bring them back home. Along the way, enemies become allies. Racists become not racist. Wimps become heroes, and at the most opportune time. A man dies in another's arms and uses his last words to tell the group to go get those bastards. As for the aliens, well, just be glad the secret to defeating them doesn't turn out to be that they're allergic to sand or something.
The lesson here is that simply pulling tired tropes from two different kinds of movies doesn't instantly make something fresh. You can't blame the actors for the film's failings: Craig basically plays James Bond on a horse, and is suitably badass in the role (next to the initial invasion scene, which Favreau nails, the movie's best moment is in the opening minutes, when Craig kills four guys by himself). Ford delivers a great performance as the gravel-voiced cattle baron whose money gives him totalitarian control over the small town. But the film fails them: Craig is never given an opportunity to break his tough facade, so his character comes off distant rather than stoic; Ford's redemption doesn't make any sense. And that's not to mention the complete waste of Sam Rockwell, as grievous a cinematic crime as exists.
Furthermore: Isn't the point of having aliens attack a simpler world to stack the odds against humanity? If Earth has trouble fending off interplanetary armies with 21st-century weaponry, shouldn't it be even more difficult for humans to beat back an advanced civilization when all they have are revolvers, bows and arrows? Cowboys & Aliens cheats around that, to the detriment of suspense. As ludicrous as the notion of uploading a computer virus onto an alien spacecraft was in Independence Day, it worked because it made the challenge seem monumental. The resolution in this movie is a breeze by comparison. Oh, well. Looks like we'll just have to wait to see how Ridley Scott handles it in his inevitable swords-and-sandals-and-spaceships epic, Roman Gladiators Take on the Martians. PG-13. Opens Friday at area theaters. Visit wweek.com for showtimes, and click here for a look at the previous work of Jon Favreau.