I’ve been staring at my screen for an hour now. I’ve got trusty MS Word opened up on my MacBook and a fresh document started. I’ve got a notebook littered with handwritten scrawls sitting next to me, and more typed notes scattered above this paragraph that you’ll never even see. I’ve got so many things I’m trying to figure out how to say, but the utter mediocrity of Cowboys & Aliens — the sheer, thudding, slick, ugly predictability of it all — weighs on me so greatly that it almost defeats me. I find I’m full of things I’d like to talk about, points I’d like to make, and questions I’d like to raise, but Jon Favreau’s latest directorial effort has me flummoxed. Do I begin by addressing the total interchangeability of the stock characters? The way the script has more awkward exposition and less polish than you’d find in a video game? The fact that Favreau spends two hours haphazardly mashing up two established film genres but never bothers to give the viewer a reason to care about it? That’s all in the movie, all that and so much more (or less, depending on your view). But I’ve rarely felt behind the eight ball like I do now. I’ve seen worse films — far worse — but few quite as disappointing as Cowboys & Aliens. Favreau and his not inconsiderable crew could have turned their filmic hybrid into something fun and adventurous, something that copped to its own silliness but had enough fun and brains along the way to still get you invested in what was happening. But they don’t. Time and again, beat after beat, the film comes within inches of being entertaining and settles for being a production. It’s so frustratingly close to being a fun summer ride, and that closeness makes its failure all the more upsetting. This was a race the filmmakers almost figured out how to run, only to drop dead in sight of the finish line.
It’s fitting that the film revolves around a man (Daniel Craig) who initially can’t remember his own name, because none of the characters stick in the viewer’s mind once they’re gone. The man wakes up in the Arizona desert in the late 1800s, with no memory of who he is or how he got there but no qualms about beating a bloody path back to civilization. He murders some passing bandits before they can haul him off, after which he makes his way to a small nearby town populated by stereotypes. There’s the no-nonsense preacher who mixes spiritual admonitions with threats, Meacham (Clancy Brown); the hot-headed young man, Percy (Paul Dano); and, in a two-for-one special, the diminutive town doctor who’s also the saloon owner and bartender, Doc (Sam Rockwell). That Doc is never actually given a name is no accident: he, like the others, has nothing to say or do that defines him as a person. The town doesn’t feel like a community in the slightest, merely day players waiting around for something to happen.
Which it soon enough does. Our unnamed hero turns out to be Jake Lonergan, a wanted man and former gang member who gets spotted by the law and locked up when all hell breaks loose. This is when the film’s other half comes into play as, out of the night sky, alien ships swoop into town and start snatching people. Favreau controls the action scene with skill, and the sound design is engineered to make your ribs rattle uncomfortably, but it turns out to be the high point of the film. The ships make off with half the town, leaving the survivors to form a posse and head out after them. Among the missing are Doc’s wife, who has a name but no identity to go with it so there’s no point looking it up, and Percy, whose father, Woodrow Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford), is a gruff local cattle baron. The only advantage the survivors have is Jake: on his wrist he sports a thick metal bracelet that transforms into a miniature laser cannon at opportune moments, and it’s with this gun that he takes out one of the invading ships and gives hope to the community that they can destroy the rest.
It’s the bracelet, this little weapon mounted to Jake’s forearm, that’s symbolic of the laziness and hubris of the entire script. What makes it weaponize? How does it fire? Can Jake control it? It’s a fun twist to give Jake what’s apparently an alien weapon in the battle, but there are so many idiotic holes that could have so easily been filled by dialogue or action that I’m starting to wonder if anyone paid attention to the script beyond the title. That’s where the frustration of the film’s proximity to success comes in. Why not have Jake act out the experience of controlling the thing, or at least visually represent it through some kind of special view? As a last resort, why not have him ruminate about how he doesn’t know how he got the device but does know, mysteriously, how to control it? Was that too interesting a choice? Did that provide too much fuel for the story? No one seems to know or care. Not Favreau, and certainly not the army of writers whose names are on the final product. The film went through several iterations and ultimately gives story credit to Steve Oedekerk and the team of Mark Fergus and Hawk Ostby, with screenplay credit to Fergus and Ostby as well as the team of Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman, and Damon Lindelof. You’d think with so many fingers on the pages that someone would have taken a moment to address things like how to honestly and interestingly introduce new story elements. Then again, maybe everybody figured the other guy would get around to it.
So the posse sets off, including Dolarhyde, Jake, Doc, Meacham, scattered others with and without names, and the mysterious Ella (Olivia Wilde), who’s very interested in helping Jake find out what happened to his missing memories. From there, the film stumbles through a series of exhausting set pieces that betray the viewer by never connecting the action to anything. Everything’s big and shiny and dangerous, but there aren’t any real consequences. For instance: At one point, the crew is set upon by more alien ships, and Jake separates from the pack to rescue a kidnapped Ella. After doing so, he rides with her back to the rest of the group, who have all miraculously survived the onslaught of interstellar war technology through means we are never shown. Not once in Jake’s chase of Ella does Favreau cut back to the gang to show how they’re making out. Do the ships get bored and leave? Does anyone else get kidnapped, or killed? Do the humans figure out a way to defeat or at least frighten the ships? Never answered. The movie rejects all notions of plot and consequence and just is, in a state of such pure enlightened emptiness it’s almost an achievement.
Favreau drags his band of warriors across the plains in search of the aliens, where they encounter everything from thieves to Native Americans, but each skirmish feels increasingly lifeless. No one’s ever given anything to say that feels remotely organic or sound, and their personalities are all summed up in the one-sentence exposition they’re given at random points. (E.g. Doc’s inability to get any respect from the town, summed up in his line, “I don’t get any respect in this town.”) The jokes are the real indicator, though. None of the infrequent punch lines that skitter across the screen feel attached to any one character or moment. Rather, they’re all vaguely sarcastic and droll as if made to measure up to a generic standard of “funny” that could then be sloppily pasted onto whoever was set to speak next. That’s not humor, or even writing; it’s checking things off a list and shoving them into your blockbuster. Favreau and his legion of writers make the enormous mistake of assuming that a character’s presence on screen is enough to give that character meaning, when nothing could be further from the truth.
That’s why it’s impossible, almost embarrassing, to try and examine the acting. The performers are reduced to merely reading clunky lines with as much energy as they can muster. These are not actors to be brushed off, either: Most of them have proven themselves to be capable of great things when given the right material, a good director, and room to flex the emotional muscles that go unused here. Only Wilde feels truly at home. Pretty and wooden in the way of modern stars, she mouths her unintentionally hilarious explanations of who she is and what she really knows with quiet determination, engaging with the text on a mechanical level and nothing more.
Yet of the film’s many failures, most damning is the way Favreau forgets to have any kind of fun. His early directorial outings smothered the viewer — Made seemed destined to eradicate any goodwill leftover from starring in Swingers — but with Elf and Zathura, he started to figure out that bringing positive emotions to his adventure tales was the best way to involve the audience in character development. Iron Man is a fantastic example of this. Tony Stark has an emotional crisis because he’s selling weapons and contributing to global self-destruction. So what does he do? He decides to become a superhero and fix things himself, using his own personality to drive his actions. We get to see a great and entertaining movie with a smart script, and we’re drawn in by the brains and soul that went into the thing. But no one here has any personality. They’re as shallow and forgettable as can be. Favreau hasn’t made a movie; he’s given crude life to a pitch that’s all idea, no direction. It’s a silly, unthinking reversal from his earlier work. Then again, no superhero lives forever.
Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba and a member of the Houston Film Critics Society and the Online Film Critics Society. He’s also a TV blogger for the Houston Press. You can visit his blog, Slowly Going Bald.