I try not to make reviews about me, because while the observer has quite a bit to do with the observation, the observed is the part other people care about, but I need to share something before continuing on with the discussion of Cowboys & Aliens. I’ve produced and directed several plays and a couple films, nothing on the scale of Cowboys & Aliens, obviously, but the creative process is fractally the same in most important ways, no matter how much or how little money’s involved. Sometimes you start out with The Greatest Idea In The World — or, in the case under discussion, an absolutely terrific title — and for whatever reason, factors beyond one’s control, poor or incomplete planning, any of a thousand little things can derail your project and leave you as the creator and your audience wondering what went wrong.
Such is the case, sadly, with Cowboys & Aliens.
Mild plot structure spoilers ahead.
Put on the spot, I would identify the title as the movie’s biggest problem. It’s so great that it’s hard for any movie to match the one the audience had in mind after hearing the title and seeing those frenetically edited, inscrutable trailers for months. In a lot of ways, what the audience (unless it’s just me) brings to Cowboys & Aliens is the stuff that gets in the way. Like, if this movie cost $10 million or less and the aliens were just a bunch of guys in rubber suits like Hannibal on The A-Team and there weren’t two of the coolest movie stars of all time headlining it, it’d be an affable, sloppy, kind of dumb (but not in a bad way) good time. As it is, though, Cowboys & Aliens cost $160 million, the aliens are expensively and digitally rendered and look worse than Hannibal used to (non-A-Team fans, be advised: that’s not good), it stars Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford, and all of these factors cause the sloppiness and dumbness to be, rather than affable and good-natured, frankly kind of sad.
This isn’t to say that Cowboys & Aliens doesn’t have its good qualities. Daniel Craig is pure movie star; no matter how dumb the movie around him gets (which is plenty, and not in a good way), he’s a rock. And for the straight ladies and gay gentlemen in the crowd, he rides a horse with style and has shirtless scenes, so there’s that. Harrison Ford is so effortlessly charismatic that when he tries — which he certainly does in this, I haven’t seen him this awake in almost twenty years — he reminds you why he’s Harrison Ford. And this is, shockingly, the first western he’s ever done (that anyone’s ever seen, unless The Frisco Kid has some big cult audience I’m not aware of). Sure, Indiana Jones rode a horse, but it’s not a western.
Oddly, despite all the aliens running around in UFOs blowing stuff up and being all technologically advanced and all that hoo haw, Cowboys & Aliens is a bona fide western. A stranger (Daniel Craig) comes to town. There’s a country preacher, a tenderfoot doctor, a rich guy (Harrison Ford) who might be kind of bad, a mysterious woman (Olivia Wilde, about whom more in a second), outlaws, Injuns (and quite stereotypical ones at that), a climax that involves heading them off at the pass and dusting off some Mexican-American and Civil War military tactics, and a whole bunch of stolen gold. And, being a bona fide western, it’s not a spoiler to reveal that the hero rides off into the sunset (kind of, it’s mid-afternoon — but the horizon anyway) at the end.
There are — obviously, considering the very presence of the word “aliens” in the title — some variations on the standard western format and tropes, the best of which is Olivia Wilde’s character. For the early parts of the movie, she’s given little to do but stand around looking exotic while wearing a gun, while some poorly groomed provincial or other says something sexist to or about her every five minutes. Then, in a scene that was spoiled by the trailer, it’s revealed that there’s a bit more to her than we’d had any previous reason to suspect, and she immediately becomes the most interesting character in the movie. Daniel Craig’s intense magnetism and Harrison Ford’s Harrison Fordness aside, seriously, if this movie had been told entirely from Olivia Wilde’s perspective, it’d have been a much better (and more overtly SF) movie than it ends up being. She’s terrific in the role (such as it is), too, every bit the match for Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford in the charisma department.
Sadly, the movie’s upside ends there. Jon Favreau is a skilled director who knows a great deal about cinematic technique, which he uses quite well... sometimes. As in the Iron Man movies, the action frankly sucks (technical term) and the further we get into the part of the movie where action predominates, Favreau’s confidence gets wobbly, and with it the camera. The suspenseful part of the action sequences is less whether the good guys are going to make it out intact than in the desperate, urgent wish to see a well-framed shot again. (That was mean... sorry, sir).
Rickety as Favreau’s action skills are, though, the script is the real culprit. There’s a probability formula in Hollywood that dictates that, past the second credited writer, with each additional credited writer, the likelihood of that script being good or even coherent diminishes exponentially. Cowboys & Aliens has six. Another (less clearly defined; the subjectivity gets messy) variable in that equation that’s a red danger sign is if a lot of those writers are people you’ve heard of. I’d heard of all six. That means a lot of money was spent on the script, which means someone was nervous, which... well, you get the idea. The thing is, if six writers did enough to get credit, dozens of others had to have had a hand in it at some point or other, and that many cooks stirring this kind of pot leads to messy storytelling.
The story is rock solid for about the first twenty minutes. There are some crisply-directed scenes (the opener, in particular, is a great example of efficient visual exposition and deliberate cutting) setting everything up, but it all goes to pieces the second the aliens show up. The movie gets torn in several directions (a metaphor, interestingly, personified in Harrison Ford’s first scene, where he’s draw-and-halving some guy between two horses to get him to talk) between playing it straight, which was a smart choice, and playing it ridiculous, which unfortunately the title plays right into.
The climax is a particular disaster of logic, as the movie finds itself painted into the corner of how the cowboys (and Indians, who have by this point joined the fight) manage to fight off the aliens without magic. Rather than explain, the movie just has people run into exactly the right random spot at exactly the right time, instantaneously learn how to work alien technology even though their only frame of reference is to refer to the aliens as “demons,” and generally run around so fast it’s like Favreau’s sitting behind the camera chewing his fingernails going “just speed everything up so no one notices nothing makes any sense.”
Despite all of this, though, Cowboys & Aliens is not a movie that I can bring myself to hate. I found it very frustrating, more for what it could have been than what it was. Really, instead of blaming Favreau or the writers (the cast is great) or the FX team, I blame myself. I think I’d built this up to be Steve McQueen and John Wayne Fight The Martians, and since that movie can never exist, it’s on me for expecting this to be that. Oh, well. There is one silver lining, though: if we want a story about cowboys fighting aliens, Howard Waldrop’s short story “Night of the Cooters” will always be there to fill the void. That story is awesome (Slim Pickens Fights The Martians is just as good as McQueen/Wayne), and in fact, I’m going to go read it right now and cheer up.