Cowboys and Aliens is one of those movies that I really wanted to like, even tried to like. The previews looked interesting, it featured several actors that I like (Daniel Craig, Harrison Ford, Olivia Wilde, Sam Rockwell), and involved great producers in Brian Grazer and Ron Howard. And with Jon Favreau at the helm as director, I was very much ready for a fun summer popcorn flick. Unfortunately, that was all ruined by actually watching this film.
You may have heard that this film was based on a graphic novel of the same name. I’d love to blame that as the source for the problems with this film, but from the synopsis I read of it, they are hardly similar at all. What’s more – the graphic novel itself is based on other source material, specifically, a Far Side comic. You read that right – a 163 million-dollar movie was based on a single frame of comic. And just in case that’s not enough, this particular comic wasn’t even funny. It depicts a cowboy shooting at flying saucers while racing away on horseback, with the caption “The often romanticized image of cowboys and aliens.” I love Far Side, but Gary Larsen must have been mailing this one in.
The movie begins just like the previews – Jake Lonergan (Craig) wakes up in the desert with amnesia and a snazzy bracelet attached to his wrist. He makes his way to a small town called Absolution, some completely meaningless shit happens, and we all wonder how long it’s going to take before the aliens show up. I’m sure the film crew thought they were building characters and important plot points here, but none of this matters when the aliens show up because we all know the characters are going to put aside their differences to work together and hug it out if they defeat the aliens. To make matters worse, Jake is a terrible choice for hero. He’s wanted for murder (among other crimes), is part of a gang that robbed the local cattle rancher, Woodrow Dolarhyde (Ford), and backstabbed his own gang by stealing Dolarhyde’s gold from them, in order to live happily ever after with a prostitute. We’re just supposed to root for him because Dolarhyde is somewhat of a tyrant and his son is a little prick to the townsfolk.
Anyway, the cast is rounded out by every token western character you can name. Preacher – check. Town sheriff – check. Kind-hearted saloon owner (Sam Rockwell) – check. At least one person named Doc (still Rockwell) – check. A bunch of frightened, cowed townsfolk – check. An alien disguised as a prostitute to get revenge on the evil aliens who can also walk through fire and seemingly can’t die and is constantly dressed in the least flattering clothes to make sure we know she “doesn’t belong” – chec…wait, what? Yes, you read that correctly, and, yes, that’s Olivia Wilde’s character, Ella Swenson.
(Side note – who the hell came up with the character names? They are caricatures of western names and are so obvious in their meanings they might as well have hit us with a brick. Jake is a loner, get it? Woodrow takes a dollar out of everyone’s hide, get it? Absolution is where all is forgiven, get it? I can’t believe there are screenwriters who cashed checks on this first-grade shit.)
You might think that I just spoiled part of the movie for you, but I already told you that none of that stuff matters. Ordinarily, I would hammer a film for no character development, but since they decide to throw it all away fifteen minutes in, it just doesn’t matter. When the aliens finally show up and start snatching people, the survivors band together to get their people back. And they know they have a chance because Jake has that sweet bracelet thingy that allows him to shoot energy pulses and take out the alien ships. I hope you felt ridiculous reading last sentence because I felt ridiculous writing it. But that bracelet is, accompanied by Jake’s amnesia, the only thing we’re really interested in finding out. Without spoiling that, I will tell you his amnesia eventually goes away and you will see how he got the bracelet. And on that note, you will also see how much more stupid and nonsensical this movie can get.
Actually, there’s one other thing we’re interested in – why are the aliens there and why are they snatching people? Two great questions with two stupid answers – they want gold and just because. Seriously, I’m not making that up. They have a giant camouflaged ship parked between mesas and mining gold. Since the mining is all automated the aliens must be bored. Solution – snag some locals, make them stare at a giant glow lamp, and start experimenting on them. I’m still not making any of this up. The aliens don’t eat them or brainwash them to infiltrate the human population or enslave them to mine gold or even make them sing and dance for amusement. All they are doing is calling attention to themselves, which we all know is going to lead to their downfall, even if it does come at the hands of Cowboys and Indians wielding spears, arrows, pistols. The worst of it all is that we don’t even know why they want the gold. The explanation is, to quote Ella, “Gold is just as valuable to them as it is to you.” Well, fuck, I’m satisfied.
The worst thing about this movie is that it could have been really good (though, can’t we say that about all movies not named Bridesmaids?) or at least a really good popcorn flick. The characters were all boring, the film lacked any kind of plot beyond its title, and it took itself way too seriously. Any comic relief was lost in the seriousness and the film didn’t even have enough action to cover up its glaring flaws. They literally spend half the movie trekking through the desert with a couple of sporadic skirmishes to break up the tedium and the filmmakers expect us to be entertained by this. How can we be expected to give a shit when they so clearly don’t? The only thing that saves this movie from being a complete disaster is that the actors seemed to do everything they possibly could to save this movie. Sadly, the only thing they achieve is proving that even Gary Larsen has off days.
Rating: Ask for nine dollars back. Those actors deserve some pity.