Cowboys and Aliens is an absurdist pastiche of overused action movie tropes (Bourne in the old west! With aliens!), which is occasionally compelling, if only for the sheer audacity of plot choices. That is to say, it’s ridiculous. And I’m a big fan of the ridiculous (see also: Lieutenant, Bad; Werner Herzog version of). I just wish Cowboys and Aliens‘ preposterousness wasn’t so couched in pre-fabricated stories and characters. It’s a lot like Lost, but even black smoke monsters and polar bears seemed more fresh than Cowboys, Indians, aliens, rocket hands, and amnesia. It plays like a producer brainstorming session that never got edited, which makes it all the more shocking that no one turns out to be a vampire or a hot cyborg lesbian (spoiler alert).
It’s hard to believe Lost exec producer Damon Lindelof had five co-writers, because the whole thing reeks of black smoke musk, from the character daddy issues driving every single plot point right down to the fat-faced kid with a dog who seems totally unnecessary to the plot. I imagine the writers meeting went something like this:
Alex Kurtzman: Cowboys!
Robert Orci: Indians! Aliens! James Bond! Indiana Jones–
Steve Oedekirk: (*loud gurgle, extended fart sound followed by terrible stench. the rest of the gang rolls his wheelchair outside before continuing*)
Lindelof: Amnesia! Religious themes! Re-incarnation–
Iron Man writers Mark Fergus and Hawk Ostby: [together] ROCKET HANDS! (*they smash their beer steins together, down the rest, and stomp off like the Bushwhackers*)
The film opens on Daniel Craig’s pouty upper lip as he takes a siesta in the desert. …But SOON it’s OTHERS who’ll be taking a DIRT NAP! (see what I did there?) He’s awoken by a group of serious-looking cowboys carrying scalps and spitting tobacco, and they ask him who he is and what’s his story — all friendly-like at first. He was just sleeping in the desert after all, maybe we could call his mom? “Maybe he’s retarded,” they muse, when the pouty-lipped drifter doesn’t answer or acknowledge them at all. Then, before you know it, Daniel Craig has stolen the leader’s rifle, blown the f*ck out of two of them, and beaten the last guy to death with his bare hands.
This will be our movie’s protagonist.
Nothing wrong with having a sociopath as your hero (I kind of like it, actually), but Cowboys & Aliens instead follows the old Lost pattern where a character who’s a cartoonish villain in one scene can be a cartoonish hero in the next, and if you expect there to be some resolution of this at the end, you obviously have never seen Lost. “Yeah, I was unstuck in time for a while, but these days I mostly fight vampires and daydream about my abusive father.”
The fact that anything can happen and all the previously-established logic of the movie can be thrown out on a whim and substituted with a stegosaurus at any moment is actually the film’s strength. But unpredictability alone can’t carry a film, especially when the unpredictability is mostly a function of old ideas squoshed together in weird ways than of any new ones. Harrison Ford plays the rich heavy who runs a frontier town, and is ashamed of his weasely, entitled son (Paul Dano). Then you’ve got a fat-faced kid with no parents, a put-upon barkeep (Sam Rockwell) trying to man up for his wife, a wise old preacher doling out sage advice, Harrison Ford’s adopted Indian son desperate to feel loved, and of course, a mysterious man and a mysterious woman who fall mysteriously in love (Daniel Craig and Olivia Wilde). They all have to come together to
figure out why they’re stuck on this island defeat an invasion of aliens who’ve been stealing their townspeople for some reason (a reason that will never make sense).
As with Lost, the biggest mistake Cowboys and Aliens makes is expecting us to care about the characters. John Locke was the closest thing Lost had to a compelling character, and even that they sort of pissed down their leg towards the end. Cowboys and Aliens has a bunch of Jack and Sawyers. Oh, the murderous psychopath is sad bout his dead flashback wife I never met? Sorry, don’t care. Wake me when he’s bludgeoning something again.
One thing C & A does have going for it is the ability to create a competent spectacle. Of the rare praise Michael Bay does get, it’s usually for his over-the-top action sequences. But his shrill, incomprehensible, over-edited set pieces get boring and monotonous ten minutes in. It’s hard to care when you can’t even tell what’s happening. Jon Favreau on the other hand, is pretty good at giving his stunts and CGI some punch, even if they don’t exactly follow any rules of plausibility (guns that don’t work at all on the aliens one minute blow their heads clean off in the next). Meanwhile, Daniel Craig seems to have super powers based on glaring. “What? I can’t shoot that guy, look how hard he stares at stuff!” the bad guys seem to say. And then he throws them through a window without ever making eye contact, because eye contact is for queers. Movie hardasses have no use for it.
Cowboys and Aliens isn’t terrible if you’re looking for something stupid.