While it might seem like a strange and jokey mash-up, combining the Science Fiction and Western genre is actually old hat. The original Star Trek tv-series was pitched as “wagon train to the stars,” and more recently shows like Joss Whedon’s brilliant but short-lived Firefly played with Western motifs in space, including Civil War veterans and cows. Jon Favreau’s Cowboys & Aliens straightforwardly combines the two genres, having sinister aliens invade the old west. The literal-minded title might lead some to think this is jokey, self-aware fun in the vein of Snakes on a Plane, but the reality is that the film takes itself quite seriously. Favereau’s film is a dour-faced and violent Western, though not without moments of inspiration.
The film begins as Jake Lonergan (Daniel Craig) wakes up in the middle of the desert with no memory of how he got there, and a mysteriously out-of-place piece of technology on his wrist. He quickly shows himself to be a dangerously effective dude, and rides into a small town whose chief citizen is a grouchy cattle baron, Woodrow (Harison Ford). When aliens (thankfully the characters never anachronistically refer to them as such, musing as to whether the monsters are in fact “demons” from hell) turn up and kidnap a good portion of the town, including Woodrow’s neer-do-well son. Lonergan and Woodrow round up a posse to hunt down the monsters if they can, with the help of the mysterious Ella (Olivia Wilde).
Between Craig and Ford, the film has more than its share of growling, hard-case Western masculinity. Both Craig and Ford are good at these kinds of characters, but neither Lonergan or Woodrow have the charisma of a James Bond and Han Solo. The resemblance only makes one notice the differences all the more. None of the characters in the film are developed much beyond clichés, which even dictate the predictable character revelations in the film’s final act. Sam Rockwell and Adam Beach provide nice supporting turns, adding humour and an earnest pathos to the film, respectively, but it’s not enough really. The stock characters aren’t so much a problem as one might expect, since the Western setting brings with it certain expectations that can appropriately be played with. But Favreau’s decision to play the film straight makes all the growling and grime come across as fairly one-note. Cowboys & Aliens lacks the particularity of character that served the Coens so well in last year’s True Grit remake, instead going for an absurd seriousness that the film never really earns. Since the commonality between Science Fiction and the Western is a kind of American self-reliance and community in the face of an unknown frontier, one often gets interesting characters. What draws a person to the West? The parallels between the alien’s colonial invasion of Earth and Western expansion are barely hinted at, eschewed for more scenes of Craig blasting at aliens with his wrist weapon.
The action suffers from what I call Michael Bay-syndrome: it’s all fast cuts that serve to hide a dearth of choreography. In the final act the scenes of the aliens attacking the heroes start to become tryingly repetitive. The best action scene in the film involves the spaceships chasing the heroes on horseback in the open plain. The design of the aliens and their ships are also derivative of films like Independence Day, going for a slimy, scary presence that ends up making them spatially confusing entities.
Cowboys & Aliens isn’t a particularly bad film. It’s got enough going for it, mostly through the charisma of the lead actors, to make for a pleasant summer diversion, but the novelty of the genre mash-up isn’t enough to justify the whole experience. Science fiction already owes enough to the Western, which makes this film less than adventurous.
Cowboys & Aliens (2011)
Directed by Jon Favreau; written by Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman & Damon Lindelof and Mark Fergus & Hawk Ostby; starring Daniel Craig, Harrison Ford, Olivia Wilde, Adam Beach, and Sam Rockwell.
5 out 10