Review: ‘Cowboys and Aliens’ has star power, can’t connect dots

SAN DIEGO – Handsomely produced, packed with a cast that all do expert work, directed well and polished to a high gloss, “Cowboys and Aliens” largely left me cold.  It’s a troubling misfire because it feels like all the elements were in place for something special and fun, and instead, it is an exercise with no result, window dressing in search of a film.

“Cowboys and Aliens” is not a bad film.  It’s not unpleasant.  It’s not offensive.  I’m frustrated by my own reaction to it precisely because I acknowledge a certain sort of efficiency to the way it’s built.  Jon Favreau called his shot on this one when I visited him in the editing room of the film, talking about how important it was to make this a genuine Western first, and then to simply introduce one fantastic element.  I saw the first half-hour of the film on that visit, and then again in December at Butt-Numb-A-Thon when Favreau came down to visit and make the same presentation.  I liked what I saw then, and tonight, when I saw the finished version of that first act, I really admired the construction of that stretch of film.  It opens well.  The problem is, it opens so well that it sets up expectations that it utterly fails to meet.

Basically, the film is a mystery first, a Western second, and a science-fiction action film third.  The mystery begins with the opening shot of the film.  Daniel Craig wakes up in the middle of the desert, alone, bloody, a wound in his side, and he has no idea who he is, how he got there, or what happened to him.  He manages to survive an ambush and make his way to a nearby dying mining town, where he crosses paths with Percy Dolarhyde (Paul Dano), the idiot spoiled son of Col. Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford), a local cattle baron who is single-handedly keeping the town financially afloat.  Their conflict lands both of them in chains, and when the Colonel comes looking for his boy, everything looks to be on the verge of blowing up… when spaceships attack the town.

The slow build is all handled with grace, and that first act sets up any number of character dynamics that are promising and could have delivered over the course of the whole film, but the movies makes a huge mistake when the aliens, during their attack on the town, kidnap about half of the characters, effectively defusing all of the character tension that they’d built up by that point.  In particular, losing Paul Dano from a good 2/3 of the movie is a problem.  One of the real joys of that first act is watching Daniel Craig abuse the crap out of Dano.  Huge, genuine laughs every time, and that’s the kind of gift that keeps on giving in a movie like this.  You don’t just write one of those characters out early.  In general, the people who are abducted are sorely missed, and that’s a testament to how good the supporting cast is.

The other thing that I felt just missed the mark was the relationship between Jake Lonergan (Craig) and Col. Dolarhyde (Ford).  There’s a great tension in their first few moments together, building up to the two of them trading a single punch each, and the reactions they give to those punches are a nice reminder of why these are our iconic tough guys.  But they seem to get past their problems with one another so quickly and so easily that I don’t understand why they ever bother setting up any antagonism.  In general, I like the notion that the introduction of an interstellar threat would make all of the people of the Old West, traditionally divided by class and interests and race, work together as one to defeat the common enemy.  Watching stagecoach-robbing bandits and Apache indians and US Marshalls all ride into battle side-by-side has some real iconic heft, but only if you earn it.  And this film doesn’t.  Everyone’s so quick to get to the “let’s be friends” part of the film that they toss aside all this great tension, and it seems like a waste.  Ford’s character, in particular, is set up as a magnificent bastard in his first scene, and the way people talk about him before he’s actually introduced, you expect him to be playing the scariest, creepiest monster of a cattle baron.  But it’s Harrison Ford, not Henry Fonda, and this is no “Once Upon A Time In The West.”  He can’t play a bastard for the whole film or even for much longer than a few scenes.  They defang him fast, and next thing you know, he’s having heartwarming conversations with the kid played by Noah Ringer and he becomes, at most, vaguely gruff comic relief.  It’s nice to see that Ford came to play this time, and he’s certainly enjoyable to watch, but some of that charm could have easily been traded out for some sustained menace, and it would have been a better and more honest character as originally defined by the script.

The aliens themselves are a problem, and it’s not dissimilar from the same issues in “Super 8.” I think this movie handles them a little better than that one did, but I’m tired of these creature designs where, even when you’re looking directly at the thing in broad daylight, it’s still hard to tell what the hell you’re looking at.  What happened to the idea that design should be about creating something recognizable, something that we immediately recognize when we see it?  If you lined up the aliens from this film with the generic cannon fodder bad guys of about two dozen current or recent video games, I wouldn’t be able to pick it out.  I have trouble even really describing them the day after the film, except to point out that they have perhaps the single stupidest evolutionary flaw I’ve ever seen in an organism designed for movies.  Imagine if every time you reached out to pick up the TV remote, your heart and lungs were fully-exposed to attack.  That would be a pretty serious issue, right?  These things are also inconsistently powerful.  There are times where you see them fighting and they are wildly powerful, seemingly indestructible, shaking off bullet hits and savaging humans with one swing of the hand.  There are other times where they seem ridiculously easy to kill, and there’s no real reason for the difference.  Early on, much is made of the idea that they can’t see well in the daylight, but during the final set piece, set in bright daylight, they don’t seem to be hampered in the least by the harsh midday sun.  So why even mention it?  These issues are just the tip of the iceberg, too.  It’s one of those films where the more you start to pull at the threads of it afterwards, the faster the whole thing unravels, and I suspect a second viewing would exacerbate that rather than assuaging it.

Olivia Wilde, Adam Beach, and Sam Rockwell really are the MVPs here, continually finding ways to keep their thinly-written characters interesting, and they each make the mechanical payoff to their arcs almost feel organic.  I get what they’re trying to do with Doc (Rockwell), and his “big moment” is a good one, but there’s a certain perfunctory quality to how they get there.  Wilde is proving to be a smart addition to any genre cast, and she makes her mystery woman more compelling than she should be.  Beach is one of those guys who Hollywood has never really figured out, but he brings some real emotional weight to his role as one of Dolarhyde’s ranch hands who wishes he’d been born the Colonel’s son instead of Percy.  Likewise, Matthew Libatique’s photography is rich and slick and moody when it needs to be, and the rest of Favreau’s technical team all delivers above and beyond the call of duty.

If all you want from the film is a laundry list of Western tropes combined with a few action set-pieces built around spaceships and monsters, “Cowboys and Aliens” is fine.  But it’s surface-deep, and the basic logic issues I have with it really kept me at bay.  I wanted to love these characters, but the script undercuts its own best impulses in a maddening way.  And as much as I can tell there is genuine affection for the genre at the heart of what Favreau did as a director, I don’t feel like he and his small army of writers ever really figured out how to successfully marry all the impulses they had, or how to earn the epiphanies they wanted.  To me, an “almost” like this where all the elements are in place but the ingredients just don’t add up is more disappointing than a movie that’s rotten from the foundation up, and perhaps your frustrations will not mirror my own.  I just know that I walked into “Cowboys and Aliens” ready for a great late summer escape, and I walked out feeling like I’d just watched a rough draft for something better than we’ll never see now.  

“Cowboys and Aliens” opens this Friday in theaters everywhere.