Once in a while, even the most tried and true narrative formula needs repackaging for retail-friendliness—or at least that's the way it must seem to the bottom-line minders who cut checks to Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford.
So let's do this: Take one thing and put it together with another thing—but the other thing isn't what you'd expect! The first is cool, and the second is differently cool, enough to suggest that maybe this combination is just plum crazy enough to work. This being a delicate art, it'll involve some trial and error, so let's give a few combinations a shot. Spaghetti and meatballs: classic. Spaghetti and glass shards: No thank you! Spaghetti and Gummi Bears: Keep talking...
And before we know it, we're in 1800s Arizona (aka present-day New Mexico, where the movie was filmed) with invading extraterrestrials. Cowboys & Aliens doesn't just sound conceptually obvious; it's obvious in every other way, too.
For instance, Craig and Ford don't play the aliens, but instead a couple of tough guys combating them. If this is not exactly what you expect from director Jon Favreau and an original movie-ready property by comic book industrialist Scott Mitchell Rosenberg, you're not sure who those guys are anyway, so no matter.
If anything could redeem this, it would be channeling the attitude of a kid gathering all his random toys together—non sequiturs be damned—into one sincerely urgent, internally logical superstory. What Cowboys & Aliens lacks, aside from the better execution we've already seen more than once in Pixar's Toy Story franchise (not to mention Ford's own frolic with Gene Wilder in The Frisco Kid 32 years ago), is a sense of abandon.
The cheerfully winking genre enthusiasm Favreau brought to such fun romps as Elf and the first Iron Man is not readily apparent here. Cowboys & Aliens feels like a perfunctory, mercantile exercise, sagging misshapenly under the weight of its vast roster of producer and writer credits. There were probably some big shots included in that list whose demands may have simply worn Favreau down.
Neither homage nor satire, the film is more like a brainstormed shorthand checklist of plot points and payoffs. You've got the loner hero (Craig) with no past and no fear; the crusty rival-cum-ally (Ford); the irksome whelp (Paul Dano) on whom the hero puts a beating to comic effect; the woman (Abigail Spencer) who gets to make out with Daniel Craig; and the other woman (Olivia Wilde) who gets to make out with Daniel Craig. Expect a thousand other clichés: the hero surrounded (by thugs, by Apache, by aliens), the surprise rescue(s) just when all seems lost, the warrior honor bullshit, the uncertain but timely weapons proficiency and so on. Sam Rockwell brings some less contrived humanity to his tagalong part as a docile shopkeeper, but that invites the question of what he's even doing here in the first place.
Certain scenes in Cowboys & Aliens begin promisingly, but most just tend to stall out. We’re invited to do the legwork ourselves, but not at all required to, so it’s doubly insulting. If you’re sick of cowboy clichés, Favreau seems to say, “Just wait for the space invader clichés!” If you’re sick of those, it’ll be over soon.
Cowboys & Aliens
Directed by Jon Favreau
With Daniel Craig, Harrison Ford, Olivia Wilde, Abigail Spencer, Paul Dano and Sam Rockwell
Dreamcatcher, Regal Stadium 14, UA DeVargas