Cowboys & Aliens was dead before release. Many people, having forgotten the Cowboys and Indians of their youth – or having a youth spawned after we realised that genocidal war games aren’t the best things to aspire to – didn’t recall what was being referred to.
On top of that, they thought the idea was stupid, forgetting that the latter day prophet Gary Larson had foreseen it years prior:
(And believe me, it’s not that hard for multiple people to come to this same conclusion – but it’s strange that the most common source of this image has a tape mark on it.)
So a double genre piece is a hard sell to a lot of people.
“That looks like the biggest waste of a cast in Hollywood history,” one of my friends told me. While that’s far from accurate, Cowboys & Aliens is a strangely sterile affair – it’s as if it wants to be good and exciting but can’t quite jump the required hurdles, ploughing ahead in a straight and flat line.
I’ve seen outright hatred for this movie, but anyone who would put it on a “worst of 2011” list plainly hasn’t seen a bad movie this year. This movie isn’t deserving of excess praise, but it’s done nothing to earn derision.
Cowboys & Aliens is basically stunningly competent; never impressing, occasionally confusing, and sometimes raising racial quandaries, it gets the job done, and done okay.
Jake Lonergan (Daniel Craig) wakes up without his memory and with a metal bracelet strapped to his wrist. When the town that he stumbles into is ransacked by aliens, he teams up with Colonel Woodrow Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford) and saloon owner Doc (Sam Rockwell) to rescue the captives.
Daniel Craig’s amnesiac act proves that amnesic characters don’t strictly work if their memories aren’t worth remembering; the more we learn about his character, the less we care. There is nothing particularly special about him and given that there’s no real sense of mystery after the aliens start taking people, it’s impossible to truly investigate the bracelet on his arm.
True, everyone in the cast is hampered by the concept being implicit in the title, but no one has a sense of awe, wonder or fear that they’ve come into contact with beings from another world. Dedication to duty is one thing, but the grim determination and utter humourlessness with which the party approaches their goal would border on the ridiculous if we were allowed to feel anything at all about anything that we see on the screen.
With the eminently marketable duo of James Bond and Indiana Jones behind the film, one could be forgiven for expecting more from these actors. Craig and Ford do the best that they can with a script that very rarely rises above anything but the perfunctory; key characters have their “moments”, all of which are either blighted by sentimentality or come at the expense of other characters.
Olivia Wilde in particular is free floating as the pseudo-mysterious Ella, given very little to do except be the essential key. She does feature in one of the film’s two set pieces and completes her arc nicely but, as with everyone else in the film, she’s underwritten. A little bit of fun in any of the situations or characters would not have gone astray; Rockwell tries valiantly but can only do so much with so little screen time.
Given that “aliens” in the title are an explicit stand-in for “Indians”, it’s interesting to see how Native Americans are represented. Their portrayal is slightly problematic, bordering on a dichotomy of noble and domesticated savages. While the Native Americans always have the moral high ground over the white characters (particularly the half-hearted racism that Ford is forced to put on merely so it can be dismissed as bravado at a later time), it’s still somewhat worrisome.
Native Americans and reformed highwaymen are essentially cannon fodder for the underwhelming climactic terrestrial battle, but I suppose that the grudging respect forged between the natives and Dolarhyde is supposed to make it all worthwhile.
By the end, Lonergan is supposed to have proved himself as a literal man with no name, but his actions don’t seem to have particularly touched anyone in Absolution. They’ve shared some events, and all he has to do is move on. The movie ends abruptly, as if everything that has transpired beforehand was meaningful, and an understanding has been forged without words. Cowboys & Aliens isn’t near traditional enough to pull off this sort of ending and the credits start to roll almost apologetically.
I didn’t enjoy Cowboys & Aliens, but I definitely can’t say I disliked it. My feelings towards it are more positive than abyssal in nature, and I certainly don’t regret having seen it, but it’s only one step above being eminently forgettable. It constantly desires to be more than it is, but it doesn’t do anything to act upon this desire; Favreau isn’t lazy in his approach, but utterly workmanlike, and has released a movie with no real life or spark to it.
I could say that it’s unfortunate that “different” movies fail at the box office, but a film needs something other than its point of difference to qualify it as good; a movie as utterly devoid of character as Cowboys & Aliens does not strictly deserve success, and consequently has not received it.