If it's crap ... We'll tell you
Blending movie genres is an incredibly tricky endeavor. Movies like Back to the Future succeed by perfectly juggling genres like sci-fi, comedy, drama, romance, and adventure while giving the audience a cast of unforgettable characters. Cowboys and Aliens is no Back to the Future.
The plot begins with Jake Lonergan (Played by Daniel Craig), an amnesia-stricken man whose amazing combat skills seem to be muscle memory from another life. After finding his way into a small town, he discovers he has a criminal past with a huge bounty on his head. Antagonized by Woodrow Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford) and persistently questioned by Ella (Olivia Wilde), it’s not too long before Jake and the townsfolk face much bigger problems. Alien spacecrafts suddenly attack the town and steal residents. Everyone puts aside their differences and sattles up to track down these alien hombres all the while Jake attempts to rediscover his memory along the way.
The first thing one notices about the film is its inability to choose whether it wants to be a slow-paced western or a run-and-gun sci-fi adventure. Rather than try to blend the two in equal measures, it seems like they’re always at odds with one another, fighting over the story like two dogs over a bone. The story of this particular alien encounter seems rather slapped together and poorly explained. They give some idea of what the aliens are doing on Earth, but never seem to elaborate why. There’s a second act turn that isn’t even explained for the thinking impaired, let alone regular audience members to stomach. What’s tragic is that the film begins with terrifically setting up the townspeople and their relationships, but nothings ever really expanded upon once the film starts going. The film attempts to embrace the minimalism used in westerns by having beautiful scenery alongside sparse, but memorable, dialogue. The filmmakers get the former, but lose the latter. It’s amazing to think that five different writers had their hands on the screenplay where so little is, figuratively and literally, said.
The actors, god bless them, are trying the hardest here. Daniel Craig attempts to craft an intense character with an undercurrent of mystery – however, his character’s ‘mysterious past’ is so drawn out that by the time the truth is revealed the audience, it doesn’t seem as Earth-shattering as the filmmakers would like you to believe. Olivia Wilde seems to be sleepwalking through this performance, as her only real motivation is to make pretty eyes at Daniel Craig’s character. The only person out of the main cast that succeeds going the extra mile is Harrison Ford who’s gruff demeanor is endearing, but ultimately falls short of anything truly outstanding. The biggest disappointment to me with this film is just the absolute misuse of the actors playing secondary and ancillary characters. Clancy Brown as the town’s priest is quite a joy whenever he’s on screen, however his appearances are too few and far between. Walter Goggins, an actor of considerable talent, plays a character from Jake’s past, but in actuality, he’s nothing more than a glorified extra. Speaking of incredible misusage, you can practically see Sam Rockwell jumping up and down in the background begging the film for a more developed character.
While the movie does have its fair shares of errors, there are some shining moments, as well. Whenever the aliens come on screen, they are quite fascinating to behold, as they don’t merely look like the dozens of similar designs we’ve been seeing for the past couple of years. There’s a riverboat scene in the second act so terrifying and absolutely nails the tension and dread the film strives to accomplish; it’s a shame, however, that we never reach that level of well-crafted filmmaking in the film later. Action scenes towards the end really ramp up, but unfortunately don't ingrain themselves in your mind as highlights. The film’s tendency to go to darker places, such as when concerning death and morality seems perfectly suited for a haunting story set in the west. Take a sip of your soda every time you hear Olivia Wilde’s character tell Jake that he knows his past and that he just “has to remember.” By mid-way through the second act, your bladder should be about ready to explode. In fact, most of the dialogue in this film just seems like the placeholder lines that no one remembered to swap out. Imagine some stereotypical lines from westerns about ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys,’ then insert them in at random moments and you get the gist of pretty much every scene.
Director Jon Favreau decided to forgo directing Iron Man 3 in favor of creative freedom to do this movie, but after watching it, I can’t for the life of me figure out why.