There were already two strikes against it before the opening credits ended. First, I have a personal motto. The more screenwriters that have worked on a single film, the worse the film will be. I call it the too many cooks effect. There are exceptions, naturally, but I am constantly surprised how more people can lead to worse films. Cowboys & Aliens has five credited screenwriters, three people who wrote the “screen story” (including Steve Oedekerk, the guy who wrote those thumb movies) and the whole enterprise is based on a comic book.
Could it be possible that this approach could lead to too many ideas that contradict each other? Yes, and that should have been apparent by the second problem – the title. It is possible to make a sci-fi western and even include aliens in a way that are threatening in the way bandits in old westerns used to be. But naming the property Cowboys & Aliens demonstrates that the creators only cared about how cool the idea sounded. It comes across on screen too – I suppose I was meant to be surprised that someone made a sci-fi western, as though such a thing has never existed before. But that is not an impressive feat by itself. What would have been impressive is if they managed to craft a good one.
The film opens with Jake Lonergan (Daniel Craig – who tries to hard to fake the cowboy accent but only sporadically succeeds) who wakes up with no memory and a mysterious device on his wrist. He goes into a town ruled (economically) by a man named Woodrow Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford) whose son Percy (Paul Dano) enjoys being above the law. Percy gets into a fight with Jake, and both men end up arrested. Then aliens come in and start stealing the townsfolk, including Percy. It’s about as abrupt as it sounds. Jake must ride with Woodrow and the mysterious Ellen (Olivia Wilde) to find the kidnapped towns people.
What’s incredible is, with a little fine tuning, this could have been an entertaining western. Craig at least looks like he could have walked of a Sergio Leone set, and the supporting cast of townspeople are eccentric enough to be interesting. Sam Rockwell’s Doc was a character who was crying out to be utilized more, as was the sadistic Percy. And Ford…well, I want him to actually make a western now. He nails the role of the old town rich man, who can be sadistic but caring depending on who he is speaking to. The conflict was already present and a few sweeping showdowns would have been all that was necessary to make this film an entertaining, crowd pleasing western.
But then the aliens come, and the film turns into a gigantic mess.
The aliens look like the typical creature ripped from the sketchbook of HR Giger (right down to the pieces of their anatomy that come out of other parts of their anatomy). The aliens here don’t even look realistic or threatening. Maybe it’s because their ultimate motivation was the exact same as the motivation of those dirty KISS fans in Battlefield Earth that prevented me from taking them seriously, or maybe it was because I was thinking about how such aliens could have possibly evolved to look like they do and still survived on our planet with little help, or why they act like brainless monsters even though they have mastered intergalactic travel, but I never found myself frightened or even excited when these villains appeared on screen. At least the xenomorphs in the Alien franchise were artificial creations. These aliens remain shrouded in mystery – not because of suspense, but because of poor story telling.
My point is that, in a summer that has actually produced a good movie dealing with a similar subject (Super 8), Cowboys & Aliens seems downright antiquated in its sensibilities. I kept thinking about what would happen if the film did not have the aliens at all. If it just focused on Dollarhyde and his son treating the town like their own personal playground it could have created some real drama. That’s right – the film suffers from too much alien and not enough cowboy.
This film is not the complete waste that other films like it can be. There are many elements that work, mostly in the western setting. The performances are inspired and the first act shows a lot of promise. But by the end, the film meanders all over the place and discovers that its whole purpose was to be a meandering bore. The title Cowboys & Aliens did inspire great expectations – it reads more like a Roger Corman quickie than a major Hollywood blockbuster. I can report that the filmmakers tried to overcome this by crafting a good first act. But they failed by trying to balance two genres that maybe, just maybe, do not really work well together.