We’ve become quite accustomed to movies like Cowboys and Aliens: high concept gimmickry that spoon feeds us everything we need to know. It neither demands too much nor rewards too much. It exists to be consumed, enjoyed and forgotten by the time you get home from the screening: an identity it neither hides from nor denies. In light of that, it’s hard to hate, but neither does it distinguish itself amid the superheroes and boy wizards who have already strutted their stuff in the summer of 2011.
Hope for anything better stems from the presence of director Jon Favreau, an intelligent and knowing filmmaker with the potential to kick things up a notch. He turned Iron Man into an A-list superhero, after all, and even his less-known efforts show an auteurial distinction all too rare among studio directors. For some of the running time – especially the opening, before the special effects take over – you can see those sensibilities shine. He eagerly dives into the tropes of the classic Western, playing with well-worn stereotypes in a new and invigorating way. In particular, he makes terrific use of his star Daniel Craig, who conveys such volumes with his silences that the part could almost be performed mute. The first shot reveals him sitting up alone in the desert, with no idea who he is or how he got there. A strange metal bracelet is attached to his wrist and he can’t seem to get it off. He wanders into the nearby town of Absolution—controlled by a ruthless cattle baron, Colonel Dollarhyde (Harrison Ford)—and while he isn’t looking for trouble, it surely has a way of finding him.
The mystery of the bracelet is enticing and Craig’s piercing blue eyes evoke Henry Fonda at his best. Coupled with Ford–another born cowpoke in full-bore grumplepuss mode here –it makes for an irresistible set-up. Even when the genre mash-up starts, as the inevitable stand -off is interrupted by an attack from beyond the stars, the concept still holds water. Favreau brings enticement and intrigue to the notion and as the second act begins, we’re set for a thoroughly enjoyable ride.
Sadly, at that point, Cowboys and Aliens goes on autopilot. The space aliens kidnap some local townspeople and a posse is formed to save them: aided by the beautiful Ella (Olivia Wilde) and with the intermittent help of Craig’s stranger. Questions drive them on, such as who these mysterious beings are and how they’re connected to the device on Craig’s wrist. But with the path laid down before it, Cowboys and Aliens never once deviates into the creative or new.
Instead, Favreau delivers a series of bland set pieces, featuring the remaining gaggle of Old West archetypes (Indians, bandits, etc.) and some vaguely interesting aliens with a not-particularly-interesting agenda. The effects look competent, the explosions less so: with the basic visuals established, Cowboys and Aliens fails to imbue them with any spark. It’s left to the cast to engage us, and while Favreau holds a handful of aces there – including Paul Dano, Sam Rockwell, Clancy Brown and Justified’s Walton Goggins – he can’t always find proper uses for them. Too many talented performers sit around with too little to do, while the script grinds its way towards an inevitable climax that mistakes volume for dramatic power.
It leaves the viewer colder than the prairie stars. The very act of combining westerns and science fiction seems to be enough for the filmmakers, turning the remainder into business-as-usual product. Favreau shows no sense of the playfulness that marks his best work, nor of exploring the interesting permutations that cross-genre pollination can bring. The film doesn’t live; it merely exists, content to keep our eyeballs occupied without investing any more than is absolutely necessary. That doesn’t make it the worst effort of the summer, but with so many other titles competing for our attention, its lack of ambition terminally hobbles it. Hollywood should be able to do better; the squandered potential of Cowboys and Aliens reminds us again how rarely they do.