The summer of 2011 continues to fizzle with Jon Favreau's well-intentioned, but surprisingly boring Cowboys & Aliens. What starts off as a promising adventure flick quickly denigrates into a humdrum snoozer. Disappointing to say the least. Jon Favreau has had a special place in my cinematic heart as an actor, director, and writer. This film and his previous effort, the tepid Iron Man 2, have him going in the wrong direction.
Daniel Craig stars as amnesiac outlaw cowboy Jake Lonergan in 1873. He wakes up in the desert with no memory of what has happened. He has a strange wound on his abdomen, and an even stranger metallic bracelet on his left arm. Lonergan has a few altercations before getting to town, but soon discovers he's not alone in his predicament. People are vanishing. A chance run in with the town strongman, Colonel Woodrow Dollarhyde (Harrison Ford), leads to a shocking event. Flying machines swoop out of the night sky, decimate the town, and kidnap the town's people. Lonergan's bracelet activates into an energy weapon in the presence of these machines. While a posse gathers to search for the missing, a mysterious woman - Ella (Olivia Wilde) - warns them that their attackers are otherworld in nature.
Adapted from the comics by Scott Mitchell Rosenberg, Cowboys & Aliens works as a western, but not as a science fiction film. The problem is that the science fiction element is so contrived. We've seen this subject matter, in the exact same way, time and time again. Will somebody please stand up and give me some different damn aliens? Ever since H.R. Giger created his visionary alien in 1979, it seems that his idea has been copied for every film after. I found the aliens in Cowboys & Aliens to be some of the lamest aliens I've ever seen. In a year where Battle: Los Angeles and Super 8 had similar alien themes, Cowboys & Aliens brings up the rear with the most pedantic of aliens. Hollywood has to go in a different direction here. One idea might be to actually give the aliens something to do and say, make a real attempt to characterize them instead of treating them like mindless zombies. It seems to me that if something was smart enough to build a ship, come here to kick our asses, they might have something interesting to say or do.
The casting is very good. Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford are more than capable leads. Throw in Adam Beach, Sam Rockwell, Paul Dano and you have quite a supporting cast of good character actors. Unfortunately they are giving nothing to do here. The screenwriting tandem of Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman (Star Trek) have a reputation for writing meaty parts for side characters. They're shooting blanks here as all the characters are fairly one-note.
Cowboys & Aliens aims for high suspense but does not deliver. I've never read the source material, so I'm not sure what mood the comics set, but the opening scenes of this film have promise. Then it sputters to a drip as we learn more of the aliens intentions. I can't help but feel that this could have done better by Favreau and the writers. Were the aliens so drab from the beginning there was no psychological motivation to shore up the film? This is possible, smart people suffer group think when they don't have an outside view of the project they're working on. If only I could go back in time to a pre-production meeting, have Favreau best bud - Vince Vaughn - walk into the room and say, "Guys, these aliens suck, is this the final design?"
Let me be clear this is not a bad film, just mediocre where it could have been better. I see a ton of sci-fi and westerns, so maybe was too harsh where the nascent genre viewer might not have been. Geekdom is a curse for quality and forces people like me, with no talent whatsoever except to criticize and whine, to spur quality art from the talented like Jon Favreau. But have no fear sci-fi fans, Attack the Block comes out soon in the US and will give you that sweet science fiction fix you have been craving for all summer. Western fans are screwed I'm afraid, hopefully the first half of Cowboys & Aliens can hold you over until Quentin Tarantino unchains Django next year.