Thursday, August 4, 2011

Where the Buffalo and Aliens Roam: COWBOYS & ALIENS

I don’t like Cowboys & Aliens, which is especially disappointing since I more or less loved, or I was at least ready to like, the individual pieces. It starts as a dusty Western with a mysterious stranger (Daniel Craig) riding into a small frontier town. This is well before the aliens show up. Now, you wouldn’t normally expect a Western to feature a scene in which UFOs swoop down from the sky and shoot up a town with laser beams and rope up some townsfolk for study and probing, but this is no normal Western. As that great title would have you know, this is going to be a genre mash-up. The concept makes sense to me. Why are alien invasion movies always set in either the present or the future? Aliens could just as well pop in on the 1800’s. After all, H.G. Welles wrote his War of the Worlds in 1898. The setting’s a nice change of pace.

That mysterious stranger I was talking about wakes up in the middle of the prairie in the opening scene to find a strange metallic device attached to his wrist and a bloody gash in his side. He’s confused about all this, mostly because he has no memory of how he got there and who he is. When he wanders into the nearby small town he’s confronted by a crusty sheriff (Keith Carradine) who matches the stranger’s face with the one plastered on a wanted poster hanging in the little jail. The town, ruled over by a vicious cattle baron (Harrison Ford), wants to quickly send the man to Santa Fe to face trial. But before they get a chance to do that, the aliens swoop down.

After the close encounter results in several missing persons, the town rounds up a posse to chase down the “demons” responsible. Since the stranger’s metallic device seems to respond to the demons in bursts of compatible weapon fire, he’s freed and invited along. Along with the cattle baron and the stranger ride the town’s preacher (Clancy Brown), bar owner (Sam Rockwell), the sheriff’s grandson (Noah Ringer), and a woman who knows more than she at first reveals (Olivia Wilde). There’s also a very sweet dog that trots along beside them the whole way through.

It’s a fairly standard Western concept playing out here. The town is wronged in some way, then a small group rides out to make things right. But, of course, instead of Native Americans, robbers, or black-hat gunmen causing trouble for the townsfolk, it’s aliens. Their design is awfully derivative, all bug-eyed and slimy, but the effects are convincing and the action is more or less what you’d expect. The cowboys ride up guns blazing and the aliens fight back with their superior firepower. Because the aliens seem to be advanced enough to travel through space but dumb enough not to think too terribly hard about strategy, this all boils down to a matter of brains (the cowboys) versus high-tech brawn (the aliens).

Even as I write all that, knowing full well the failure of execution, I find that set-up tantalizing. It’s a real shame the film feels so lifeless when it should be filled with a zip and energy. The cast is, for the most part, remarkably grizzled, tough and likable and director Jon Favreau, who’s made great popcorn fun in the past with two Iron Mans, Elf, and the underseen Zathura, has some fun introducing his one unexpected element into what is otherwise a fairly standard Western and even creates some occasionally striking images of clean, classic style. What’s surprising is how dull and rote the material feels. This is cowboys and aliens, for crying out loud! This is the stuff of a boy’s playtime, the wild combining of complete disparate genre elements into one energetic what-if scenario.

Why, oh why, then must Cowboys & Aliens feel so unenergetic? I think it must come down to the script level. Credited to six writers, some of them quite good, it has the unimaginative feel of a great, weird, original concept that has had all of its kooky edges and wacky sides sanded down by committee. What’s left is the kind of movie in which I could occasionally predict the lines right before they came out of characters’ mouths. Such rote, paint-by-numbers genre play is what confines the great film living within this one to dying a slow, painful death. The cast, the director, and the technicians try valiantly to pump excitement onto the screen but the script lets them all down.

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