Cowboys & Aliens: A misplaced action hero in a mixed up genre

1 Aug

I liked the trailer for Cowboys & Aliens. Enough to make me go to the movie. The trailer was better than the film itself. I didn’t hate the movie. It was fine. But that’s the problem for me. It was just fine. And if Hollywood thinks they can pass one over on me by selling this as a mixed-genre action film that is new and exciting, they’re sorely mistaken.  There was Wild, Wild West which was a comedy in addition to the Science Fiction-Western hybrid but that movie felt a bit more – organic.  I never thought I’d say that but compared to Cowboys & Aliens, I’d watch it any day.

Jon Favreau (Iron Man) directs this misguided vehicle.  To be fair, I’m not convinced that anyone could tackle a Science Fiction-Western and come out shining.  Actually, I can’t believe I’m saying this because I have issues with him but Quentin Tarantino might pull it off.  Perhaps the issue with the movie that I find troubling is that Jake Lonergan (Daniel Craig) is technically a comic book action hero.  And while his role might have been consistent with the action hero genre, it feels like the rest of the cast was patched together for part alien/part western films to satisfy the plot devices.  In fact, it felt like they threw in the whole kitchen sink into the film.  It was simply too much.  Too many creepy aliens by the third act when the big showdown begins.  Too much western riding across the range, etc. and no science fiction action to equalize it.  Most importantly, I never felt that I had a grasp on why the aliens so desperately wanted to mine gold from earth.  It felt like a plot device because gold mining was a part of the old west.  And, if you are going to make such a big point about how important the gold is to the aliens, then seriously, explain it to all of us a bit better.  We deserve that much for contributing to your opening weekend with $11+ depending on where you are in the U.S. watching this film.

SPOILER ALERT FROM THIS POINT FORWARD.

While Jake Lonergan’s character was consistent for an action hero, that is, his character adhered to the rules of the genre for the most part, there were still issues that arose.  His character was one-dimensional.  This was the result of Lonergan having to react to his environment and the plot points rather than us being able to watch his character drive the story forward.  We must follow Jake on his journey to figure out who he is.  But I never truly believed he really cared who he was.  He seems to follow Woodrow Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford) because he suddenly cares about the same community that just allowed him to be arrested and shackled to go to New Mexico to stand trial for a host of crimes he doesn’t remember committing.  Yes, he has his mysterious bracelet/shackle on and it is the only defense against the aliens that suddenly fly into town but the whole thing seems – disingenuous.  Why bother attacking the earthlings?  They’ve already had a giant sampling of what makes earthlings weak.  They’ve decided they can kill them at any time.  Are these attacks pleasure-seeking behavior for the aliens?  Or… are they attacking because they have located some sort of beacon/homing device on Jake’s wrist (the shackle/bracelet we discover he stole in a very late flashback)?  Or, was it because he pissed off an alien and escaped with the wrist bracelet/shackle?  I know I wasn’t clear on that.  The writers certainly weren’t clear on that.  And therein lies the problem once again, with this film.  Things just randomly happen to  move the plot forward.  And –  if while everything that happens technically is touched off by Jake’s heist and stealing of the gold from the train robbery we never see but hear about, then guess what?  This film becomes noir as well.  Because in noir, your anti-hero’s action from the past, if it is a crime, will come back to haunt him and he is somehow doomed from before the film began.  That fits into noir guidelines.  So, now we have a noir/action hero/science fiction western.  I hope you can see why I would argue this film just doesn’t quite fit the bill.

Jake’s foil, Woodrow Dolarhyde (Ford) is even more disappointing.  No, not because of Ford’s acting.  Because of the way it was written.  This is what happens when they have had 7 writers on a project (and those are just the writers that were credited after WGA arbitration).  Everyone associated with Ford’s storyline is such a cliche that I knew what would happen and how it would happen through the entire film.  When I am able to predict those things, I’m disappointed with the writing.  I want to be surprised.  I can think up a story myself, at home, for free.  In contrast, Jake’s love interest Ella (Olivia Wilde), was a small bright spot.  She gets killed by an alien in the second act but miraculously regenerates on a funeral pyre when the group is captured by Indians.  I didn’t see that coming.  Then we discover she’s an alien.  Now, a bold choice would have let her live happily ever after on the range with Lonergan.  But no, for once these writers don’t break the rules (which sometimes are meant to be broken) and Ella must leave (remember aliens have to leave), so she dies spectacularly, sacrificing herself to bring down the alien ship.  The moment she does this, she makes Lonergan a sissy.  Come on, this is the western, an action film and science fiction and we have just witnessed a woman doing ‘a man’s job.’ Now before anyone gets angry with me for asserting that, I’m simply saying that it would have been more interesting for him to die.  Or seemingly die.  Maybe with her.  Now that would have been a much more exciting ending.  Then, at the end, we are supposed to believe she revisits Lonergan as a hummingbird, or has the hummingbird let him know she’s ‘in a better place’ because at this point, I’m just not clear and hoping the movie will end.

Overall, for special effects, especially if you love to see things blown up and people killed (like a giant video game), then you’ll enjoy the third act of this film.  Because that was one of the longest drawn out battles between humans and aliens I’ve ever seen.  It did kind of feel like a B-movie where they were just recycling aliens at some points.  I started worry more about the horses falling over than the people on them.  By the time the humans (including the Indians who miraculously killed many aliens with their spears) defeat the aliens, it almost feels like an empty victory.

I’d like to recommend this movie.  I’d say, see it as a matinee or wait for Netflix.  Or cable.  Or, if you haven’t seen it yet, watch Starship Troopers or Galaxy Quest, two science fiction films that aren’t westerns or noirs but at least entertained me.  Better yet, go see Attack the Block.  A British film done for a fraction of the budget but a far superior film in every way (because I honestly don’t need special effects to make my film-going experience a good one).   I’ll be looking at Attack the Block next.

Watch my Vlog Review on YouTube.

Watch the Trailer:

2 Responses to “Cowboys & Aliens: A misplaced action hero in a mixed up genre”

  1. CMrok93 August 2, 2011 at 6:00 am #

    Nice review. When you go to see a movie called ‘Cowboys and Aliens,’ you don’t expect high art, and that’s fine by us. But if the film itself has problems with taking itself too seriously, that spells trouble, mainly because when you have five writers that’s never a good sign. Still somewhat fun entertainment. Check out my review when you can!

    • romistepovich August 20, 2011 at 5:28 am #

      Thanks. Yes, the movie takes itself far too seriously!

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