How the West Was Done (to Death)
If you're eight years old, or if you've never seen a sci-fi movie, please, go see Cowboys & Aliens at once.
Barring that, stay far away. There is literally nothing to see here except talented, iconic actors slumming in a slow-moving collage of other terrible summer blockbusters.
Full disclosure: I had no interest in seeing the film. When the teaser hit several months ago, I pegged it as a run-of-the-mill alien invasion movie that substituted high-rises for dusty saloons. You might assume that I carried my biases into the theatre with me this morning--and you'd be correct; if you doubt that it's impossible to watch any movie prejudice-free, do me a favor and shell out thirteen bucks for The Smurfs in 3D. I expect a full report afterwards, explaining how you were able to completely ignore any ill will its trailers might have inspired.
The best part about walking into something you're ninety-nine percent certain will be awful is that it leaves plenty of room to be won over--unless your intent is to be unflappable. Cowboys & Aliens has a pretty terrific opening five minutes, full of mystery and some bad-ass Western rasslin'. But the moment Daniel Craig walks into the dusty old town that he's destined to save, the movie becomes a by-the-numbers rehash incapable of mustering a single plot twist or interesting character.
Part of the blame lies with screenwriters Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci; but they're merely the last in a line of nine (yes, nine) scribes who've drafted and revised and punched-up this turkey over the last twelve years. I haven't read the comic book on which the film is based, but I seriously doubt it resembles anything that wound up on-screen. There are so many gifted, starving comics writers in the world that I find it hard to believe this level of hackery would have even made it onto a studio executive's desk (for the sake of argument, we'll forget about Green Lantern). Indeed, I'd bet money that Kurtzman and Orci's greatest contribution to the project was copying and pasting scenes from AFI's top-five Westerns and top-ten sci-fi films into their draft, just to get a shooting script out the door.
We're six paragraphs in. Are you really gonna make me talk about the plot? Okay, here goes:
Aliens attack the Old West. A former criminal and alien abductee (Craig) wakes up with amnesia and a weaponized metal bracelet strapped to his wrist. He uses it to shoot alien ships, who have come to Earth to mine gold and kidnap people (neither motivation is explained). The guy rounds up a rag-tag, reluctant posse, made up of the Earnest Kid (Noah Ringer), the Grumpy Old Man (Harrison Ford), the Token Native American (Adam Beach), and the Nerdy Saloon Owner (Sam Rockwell). Also along for the ride is a good alien posing as the Sexy Something-or-Other (Olivia Wilde)--if you think I've just spoiled a big secret, you've obviously not seen any commercials for this movie.
The posse discovers the aliens' mother ship, which they must penetrate and destroy before it can relay messages to the rest of the fleet (I guess communication systems weren't as high on this species' priority list as wrist-lasers and interstellar mining equipment). While the Man with No Name (actually, it's "Jake Lonergan", but you get the point) and the good alien girl make their way into the heart of the second Death Star, Han Solo and his band of Ewoks fend off stormtroopers in the treacherous woods of Endor. Wait, did I just confuse my movie references again?
No? I'm good?
Okay, let's move on.
Only two things work in this film. One is a scene between Ford and Beach that stands out because it's the only moment of honesty and real acting in this whole mess. The other is an unintentional metaphor that describes the Cowboys & Aliens audience to a "T": Lonergan discovers a dank holding cell in the mother ship in which the abducted townsfolk stand transfixed by a glowing blue light that gradually wipes their memories and turns them into confused vegetables.
Honestly, folks, if you come out of this movie expressing anything but anger and boredom, you may, in fact, be hopeless. From the aliens who look like Resident Evil cast-offs to the one-liners and cutesy situations designed to make cow-people chortle, Cowboys & Aliens is the ultimate in lazy, recycled garbage. I nodded off twice during a 10am screening, once waking up to the sound of a man a few rows away laughing hysterically at a scene where the saloon's fiddle player stops abruptly when the sheriff walks in (the equivalent of a dance-party record-scratch).
Nothing in Jon Favreau's film suggests that anyone was interested in more than a strong opening weekend and blu-ray sales. The irony is that Cowboys & Aliens is too dull to be cynical, but it only exists because Universal Pictures had an early-August slot to fill, and because Steven Spielberg is going for some kind of Executive-Producer world record. What began life as a pun matured into a comic book and died as a feeble, shriveled thing that only morons would call a movie.
Note: If you're looking for two far-better spins on the Western genre, check out Joss Whedon's Serenity and The Coen Brothers' No Country for Old Men. One successfully blends traditional Western motifs with inspiring and imaginitive science-fiction elements; the other is a violent, introspective look at late-20th century crime as seen through the eyes of aging lawmen.