I feel a little silly griping that a summer blockbuster entitled Cowboys & Aliens turned out to be disappointingly silly. On the other hand, I had good reason to expect a different caliber of movie. Namely, every interview with its stars and creators that I’d read in recent weeks.
Again and again, Daniel Craig, Harrison Ford and director Jon Favreau pointed out to journalists how key an artistic decision it was to play this genre mashup straight. For example, here’s an exchange from Entertainment Weekly:
EW: Whose idea was it to make it a more serious, deadpan, alien-invasion film?
JON FAVREAU: Ron Howard ... That’s one of the things he did.
DANIEL CRAIG: So we all decided to tell a story. A journey of redemption ... So we just played the reality of it.
Take this premise and treat it as camp, satire or parody, they told anyone who’d listen — or read — and you’ve got a totally different sort of picture. One they claimed to have no interest in making. But wound up making anyway.
Things start out promisingly enough with Craig riding into a small frontier town with a hunk of high-tech something-or-other on his wrist and zero memory of how he got it, who he is or where he’s been. Though he lives in the 19th century, he’s a 21st-century vision of the Man With No Name.
Things go downhill in a hurry, though, as we come to realize the townsfolk are the handiwork of the Writing Team With No Imagination. No fewer than five scribes contributed to the screenplay, and the best they could come up with was a parade of oater clichés: the gun-toting preacher (Clancy Brown); the understaffed sheriff (Keith Carradine); the mild-mannered doctor/saloon keeper (Sam Rockwell); the barroom beauty (Olivia Wilde); the Native American cowhand (Adam Beach); the ruthless cattle baron (Ford); and so on.
Craig’s character is about to be taken into custody (his face appears on a Wanted poster) when a squadron of insect-shaped spaceships descends from the heavens zapping and bombing random targets before lassoing bystanders and yanking them into the night.
Here’s where the filmmakers really blew it. If they indeed had played it straight, something genuinely fascinating and original would’ve happened next: We would have observed human beings who have no concept of space travel struggling to comprehend what they’d just witnessed. Can you imagine the emotional and psychological possibilities?
Well, you’ll have to, because Favreau and company are firmly stuck in comic-book gear and don’t broach the topic. Instead, a posse is formed. Craig and Ford — who essentially run the town — put aside their differences and saddle up to lead a gaggle of locals on a search for the abducted.
Remember that bracelet? It turns out Craig’s character had occasion to lift it from the mothership (long story), and it can blow up anything and everything extraterrestrial. Now, why would the extraterrestrials bring such a thing? It is, after all, the only weapon that gives the human race a fighting chance of survival. Otherwise this war of the worlds would’ve been waged with Winchesters and bows and arrows.
The more pressing question, of course, is how a movie whose producers include Ron Howard and Steven Spielberg ended up such a snooze with regard to its intergalactic visitors. Forget for a moment that we’re told they’ve come to mine gold — exsqueeze me? Far more inexplicably, they’re as underdeveloped and generic as space creatures get. Think Cocoon, E.T. and the rest of the pair’s distinguished sci-fi oeuvre. Compared with those inspired encounters, this doesn’t even come close.