The western and sci-fi genres are at odds with each other. Out of all the possibilities movies give us, such a mixture seems strange. One tells its stories entirely in the past while the other relies on futuristic elements. It’s a mash up that is rarely seen, but when it is, it usually breeds interesting and unique results (like Joss Whedon’s wonderful short lived television show, Firefly). This week’s Cowboys & Aliens attempts to do the same, taking familiar western elements and fusing them with conventional sci-fi fare, but it feels half-hearted and, oddly, all too familiar.
The story is simple enough: a race of aliens have descended on a small town in the 1800’s and begun abducting its inhabitants, while the remaining few head off to save them. Where Cowboys & Aliens stumbles is not in its simplistic story, but its simplistic characters. Despite its talented stars, most never rise above traditional western archetypes. Daniel Craig is the tough, hardened outlaw who talks tough but actually has a heart of gold and Harrison Ford is, well, Harrison Ford. Both give great performances, but it means little in a movie that doesn’t take the time to build its characters.
I suspect this may have been intentional, given its succinct title that suggests nothing more than a good popcorn summer blockbuster, but director Jon Favreau is too good a filmmaker to limit himself like that. It’s almost as if his initial intentions were to make a dumb fun movie, but he realized while shooting that such a thing was beneath him, so he tried, unsuccessfully, to flesh out the thin characters he had neglected up to that point. Bad drama is forced into the film where it doesn’t belong and extraneous side characters spout heartwarming monologues that are supposed to instantly change our perception of certain characters, but it doesn’t work because nothing has been leading to these moments.
Perhaps that is because the film’s dialogue is overburdened with exposition, spending far too much time explaining what is happening. When you’re watching a movie called Cowboys & Aliens, the title says it all. What more do you need to know? But it goes on anyway, saying a lot without really saying much of anything at all, attempting to fill in plot holes the screenplay has amateurishly overlooked. One character in the film, it is revealed partway through, is not human and lives “beyond the stars,” but where precisely did this person come from? What is his or her purpose? What does he or she hope to accomplish? Such cryptic language should be fleshed out, giving more narrative weight and emotional meaning to the proceedings, but, aside from a few supplementary lines of dialogue, it is left alone, an insufficient explanation for what should have been a major plot turn.
The screenplay too is packed to the brim with conveniences, disrupting whatever human danger the characters may find themselves in with the impeccably timed arrival of alien spaceships, but take away all its baffling story problems and Cowboys & Aliens still only works for those willing to dumb themselves down for it. It's hard to ignore the fact that these aliens have mastered interplanetary travel and have futuristic weapons technology that far surpasses what we have even today, yet insist on rushing head first and unarmed into battle. Again, their reasoning is briefly explained with throwaway dialogue and again it’s insufficient.
But at least the scene I’ve discussed above is bright enough to see. At times, Cowboys & Aliens is far too dark, like it was shot through tinted windows. Like many cases these days, it could be that the theater I saw it in had previously shown a 3D movie and the projector had not been properly prepared for 2D, but I saw no indications of that. It simply appeared to be an oversight from the filmmakers.
Even with all that in consideration, Cowboys & Aliens still should have been a great, or at least fun, movie. It’s the most interesting use of the classic western setting since developer Rockstar’s great Undead Nightmare video game, but it does little more than prove that an idea is not enough. That idea must become something greater, something that doesn’t rely solely on its title to get audiences in the theater.
Cowboys & Aliens receives 2/5