Hollywood takes itself too seriously, especially when it should be anything but serious. Common sense dictates that a citizen who is going to the theater to see a film titled Cowboys & Aliens would expect a witty action comedy, in the vein of Men in Black (1997), that, at it’s best, would also take the opportunity to experiment with genre conventions of the American western. The title is silly; therefore, the film should be silly. However, Cowboys & Aliens is a film that throws wit and one-liners aside and instead plows ahead incoherently with a straight face.
Daniel Craig, who stars as Jake Lonergan, provides the straightest face of all. In the first shot, Jake wakes up in the middle of the Arizona desert in sweaty, heavy-breathing panic. There is an unusual metallic bracelet around his left arm that cannot be taken off. It is clear that he does not know how he got it or what it is; for conventional screenplay necessity, he conveniently has amnesia. Three grisly riders appear and attempt to capture him for a potential warrant, but Daniel Craig shifts into his James Bond mode and lays siege to the trio in a matter of seconds. Off to the nearest town he goes.
The townspeople are a predictable lot. Doc (Sam Rockwell) is a bartender who does not know how to shoot a gun and feels disrespected by everyone except for his wife. Percy (Paul Dano) is a selfish, childish drunk who is consistently bailed out of trouble by his father, Woodrow (Harrison Ford). Woodrow was a colonel in the Civil War, and Ford portrays him firmly with fire in his eyes. Ella (Olivia Wilde) is the mysterious beauty who pursues Jake with motives he’s too stubborn to acknowledge. Nat Colorado (Adam Beach) serves as the customary young but wise Native American who lives and works with the white man.
Enter the aliens, who use their jet-like spaceships to bomb cow pastures and kidnap townspeople for reasons left unexplained. The aliens invade in the middle of the night and the cowboys quickly learn that their pistols, shotguns, and rifles are useless against alien technology. However, the metallic bracelet on Jake’s arm magically springs to life at just the right moment and allows Jake to shoot down alien spacecraft by way of a laser-beam. In the morning, Jake and Woodrow assemble a group to seek their revenge on the aliens and find the kidnapped townspeople. Ella joins, and a cowboy contributes one of the film’s many cliché lines in attempt to remind viewers that they are watching a western: “We’ve got a kid, a dog, why not a woman?”
On their journey through the wild frontier, the cowboys take shelter in an upside down riverboat from the Mississippi River. Doc states the obvious, “I don’t know much about boats, but I would say that one’s upside down.” Their logic in residing in this misplaced slice of American symbolism is preposterous. An alien attacks them late at night and, typical of contemporary Hollywood blockbusters, it is slimy, beastly, and derives from the alien in Alien (1979). As the cowboys continue to track the alien’s footprints, a gang of outlaws, who turn out to be members of Jake’s previous gang, holds them up. Jake breaks some teeth and puts the gang in their place. The cowboys then encounter a tribe of angry Native Americans who blame the white man for the alien invasion.
The third act of the film is standard: the cowboys and Native Americans realize that they must put their differences aside in hope of defeating the aliens together in a brutal battle. The plot twist is an incredibly contrived attempt to provide answers to questions that do not need answering. Ella reveals that she is an alien from another galaxy who has come to Earth to help the cowboys stop the evil aliens from kidnapping more civilians. She also states that their purpose for invading is to harvest gold, which is a rarity on their home planet. Jake’s amnesia subsides and flashbacks show that Jake and his wife had been captured by the aliens because he had stolen a large bag of gold coins and that he escaped their imprisonment with the alien’s bracelet accidentally placed and locked on his arm. Curiously, Ella informs the cowboys that the aliens cannot see well in sunlight and that they prefer the darkness, but the aliens prove to be quite the warriors as they battle the cowboys and Indians during broad daylight.
Jon Favreau, who previously directed both entries in the successful Iron Man series, has the capabilities of providing a highly entertaining Hollywood action comedy. However, it appears that he was stuck with a lackluster screenplay that probably went through too many rewrites by too many individuals and attempted to breathe some life into it. The cinematography by maestro Matthew Libatique, the eye behind Black Swan (2010) and Iron Man (2008), is rich and balanced in that it feels like Libatique was shooting a serious and moody Clint Eastwood western. Perhaps if the film had been titled Cowboys and Indians & Aliens, everyone involved might have been on the right track.
Bryan Nixon is a recent graduate of the Film Studies Department of the University of North Carolina Wilmington and a Film International ‘In the Field’ writer.
Director Jon Favreau
Screenplay Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman, Damon Lindelof, Mark Fergus, Hawk Ostby, Steve Oebekerk
Producers Brian Grazer, Ron Howard, Alex Kurtzman, Damon Lindelof, Roberto Orci, Scott Mitchell Rosenberg, Steven Spielberg
Director of Photography Matthew Libatique
Art Director Christopher Burian-Mohr, Daniel T. Dorrance
Costumes Mary Zophres
With Daniel Craig (Jake Lonergan), Harrison Ford (Woodrow Dolarhyde), Olivia Wilde (Ella), Sam Rockwell (Doc), Paul Dano (Percy Dolarhyde), Adam Beach (Nat Colorado), Keith Carradine (Sheriff John Taggart)