It’s surprising, given the modern, bubblegum pop-cultural sensibilities of director Jon Favreau’s ventures into superhero territory with his two Iron Man films, that Cowboys & Aliens should ultimately be quite so old-fashioned and disappointingly generic in its telling. Rather than crafting the type of post-modern genre mash-up expected, subverting and re-interpreting the rules of the western to accommodate its sci-fi elements in a manner attempted (to varying degrees of success) by the likes of Serenity (2005), Back to the Future Part III (1990), Westworld (1973), even the execrable Wild Wild West (1999), Favreau approaches his material in the most traditional sense. In fact, his stubborn insistence on clinging to genre archetypes aside, the black and white delineation between the good guys and the bad (simply substituting ‘Indians’ for the eponymous aliens) gives his film an even more archaic sensibility akin to the kind of unreconstructed examples of the 40s and 50s, devoid as his villains are of anything approaching personality or individuation, and presented as merely a marauding horde of evil ‘demons’.
When an amnesic ‘man with no name’ (Daniel Craig) is arrested shortly after entering the town of Absolution, having woken up on its outskirts with a metal device attached to his wrist, he’s informed by the arresting sheriff that he is in fact John Lonergan, a wanted criminal with a bounty on his head for the murder of a prostitute and the robbery of a stagecoach, carrying gold belonging to local cattle baron Woodrow Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford). As he’s about to be transported to a larger, neighbouring town on a federal warrant, lights appear on the horizon and an invading force of alien spaceships begin blowing up the town, seizing its inhabitants from the ground, including Dolarhyde’s spoilt bully of a son (Paul Dano). Lonergan’s extraterrestrial wristband comes to life, proving to be a weapon capable of taking down one of the ships, and Dolarhyde convinces him to form an uneasy alliance in order to help him find his son, Lonergan slowly piecing together his fragmented memories of how he came to be tagged by the aliens.
What little promise that’s displayed in the opening twenty minutes or so quickly evaporates as soon as the aliens appear. Craig’s opening sequence as he wakes up in the desert is niftily executed and Ford initially appears to relish a rare excursion into villainy, but the two most interesting peripheral characters (Keith Carradine’s sheriff and Dano’s brilliantly unhinged slimeball) are swiftly excised from the screen as the film begins its descent into formula, and any tension between the film’s leads vanishes as they team up to stop their bland, mutual adversaries.
Any real sense of fun or engagement with the possibilities of the material is largely absent. There’s very little humour, and a sense of confusion as to the tone of the piece is apparent from all concerned, particularly Favreau, who struggles to find any kind of balance between the traditional western stylings and the inherent silliness of the concept. Ford has been in a similar position before, working over-time to drag the ridiculous Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008) into some semblance of reality, here he’s pushing in the other direction, aware of the need to at least acknowledge the absurdities, but any attempts to inject levity fall flat and appear half-hearted at best.
Perhaps most surprising, given his experience with large action set-pieces on his previous two features, is how little dynamism there is in the direction of the alien attacks. Over-reliant on Harry Gregson-Williams’ Morricone-meets-Zimmer score to generate excitement, the pacing of the major sequences is all over the place, barely raising the pulse at all. The final act assault proves both underwhelming and confusing, and a reveal of the identity of the mysterious female (Olivia Wilde) tagging along with the posse a nonsensical expository aid at best. Favreau has proven he can confidently helm a summer blockbuster with (at least the first) Iron Man, but with sixteen credited producers, nine writers and one Steven Spielberg all voicing opinions on what the film should be, he’s found himself in charge of the worst kind of filmmaking-by-committee, delivering a picture that, much like his titular aliens, lacks identity and any sense of a singularity of vision.
Cowboys & Aliens – 2011 – USA – 118 mins – Dir : Jon Favreau