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Cowboys & Aliens (review)

Cowboys and Aliens

All Hat No Tentacles

Um, really? I mean, er, how can it be that– really? Just… wow. Wow. And not, you know, a good sort of wow.

You know my thing is all about movies not happening in a vacuum, that there’s always a cultural context in which any story is told, and that it’s important to appreciate that and talk about that and figure out what it all means in light of that. But sometimes the most important context is nothing more than the purely movie-movie one. The popcorn and the flickering projection and the everything that you bring in as a movie lover with you to see any given film.
That context with Cowboys & Aliens is this: Holy shit, Indiana Jones and James Bond are fighting frickin’ aliens. How the fuck cool is that gonna be, anyway? This is elemental stuff. This is a mashup of deliciously pulpy genres in a way that hasn’t really been done before, starring two actors who are downright Hollywood iconic for their pulpy genre work. This is a geekgasm.

Or it should be. But it isn’t. I’m so disappointed by how yawningly meh Cowboys & Aliens is that I can feel myself falling into a fangirl despair. Is geek over? I’m asking myself. How can it be that Jon Favreau, the guy who made Iron Man, cast Harrison Ford — who is not just Indiana Jones but also Han Solo and Jack Ryan — and Daniel Craig — who is not just James Bond but also that dude who totally kicked ass in Layer Cake — and then didn’t know what sort of cool shit to do with them? How could Favreau even conceive of making a movie starring these guys and not ensure that it basically is, you know, Indy and 007 versus aliens? Not those actual characters, of course: this is not about literalism but about how Ford and Craig embody, in their screen personas, a certain larger-than-life-ness, a damaged but still appealing heroism, characters you can’t help but cheer for not in spite of their enormous flaws but because of them, because they’re real men having awesome adventures?

(Also too: There should at least be a Professor Wickwire in a movie called goddamn Cowboys & Aliens.)

How did the guy who made Swingers make a movie that the guys in Swingers would sneer at?

If Cowboys & Aliens did not star Ford and Craig, it might actually be better: it wouldn’t be weighed down by all these not-at-all-unfair expectations. It’s not a terrible movie; it’s a perfectly serviceable bit of fluff. The aliens who’re discovered hiding out in their secret spaceship base in 1870s Arizona are yer standard lizard-monster types — they’re clearly technological and scientific beings, but we see next to nothing of that: we mostly see their rampaging-fiend side. Their motives for coming to Earth are pure Syfy-on-Saturday-night, and perhaps more laughably unscientific than usual. It’s not a spoiler to reveal that the aliens are here for our gold. That’s meant, I’m sure, to be a sort of Old West twist on the “they want our resources” trope, and if the small army of screenwriters — Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman (who as a team worked on Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen and Star Trek), Damon Lindelof (Lost), Mark Fergus and Hawk Ostby (Iron Man, Children of Men), and Steve Oedekerk (Evan Almighty, Barnyard), based on the comic by Scott Mitchell Rosenberg [Amazon U.S.] [Amazon Canada] [Amazon U.K.] — could have come up with something more to it than simply just that — oh noes! they want our gold! — it might be forgivable. But there’s no such cleverness to be found here. And it leaves you wondering why the aliens just don’t go mine our asteroid belt for a thousand years first, before they have to bother with the planet inhabited by the pesky upright monkeys. And yet, even the alien activity that drives the plot — they’re kidnapping humans to experiment on them; Craig’s scoundrel manages to escape along with, improbably, a bit of alien tech locked to his wrist; now he’s going back to rescue folk, including his ladylove — makes no sense. These technologically backward mammalian natives have no chance in hell of being even a nuisance to the aliens, so why not just put all the effort into taking the gold?

(Also too: the aliens have the most conveniently unlikely alien biology ever.)

Of course the humans — also including mean ol’ rancher Harrison Ford, Olivia Wilde’s (Tron: Legacy, The Next Three Days) suspiciously unladylike lady, and Sam Rockwell (Iron Man 2, Everybody’s Fine) the saloonkeeper (why did no one tell me Sam Rockwell is in this?! Sam Rockwell being in this makes it a little better, because no matter what your expectations for him, he’ll always surprise you, in a good way) — will make themselves a major nuisance to the aliens, because that’s the kind of movie this is: a big steaming pile of summer blockbuster, yee-haw! This ain’t no arthouse movie, which is why it’s okay that it’s so explosiony but inexcusable that it’s not very Indy-and-Bond-fight-aliens. There ain’t enough yee-haw here. There ain’t enough poker face here: there’s a massive tell early on that gives away something that should be surprising when you find out about it later on. Why, it’s almost as if Favreau and Co. deliberately made this movie for everyone other than their target geek audience, who would come into it expecting to see Dr. Jones and 007 and who would be able to pick up on that tell right away.

(Also too: Paul Dano [Knight and Day, Where the Wild Things Are] is here, and as splendid as always, though there isn’t enough of him; his character is such a magnificent piece of shit that there should be more of him.)

It might be an improvement if Cowboys & Aliens were depressingly conventional. But it can’t even be bothered to be that. It’s content merely to throw some little scraps of awesome at you in the hopes that you won’t notice all the awesome that’s missing. Dammit, but in a summer with a movie called Cowboys & Aliens on offer, Rango should not be the best fantasy Western.

US/Canada release date: Jul 29 2011 | UK release date: Aug 17 2011

Flick Filosopher Real Rating: rated SAGS (contains a serious amount of geek squanderage)
MPAA: rated PG-13 for intense sequences of western and sci-fi action and violence, some partial nudity and a brief crude reference
BBFC: rated 12A (contains frequent moderate action violence and scenes of intense threat)

viewed at a private screening with an audience of critics

official site | IMDb | trailer
more reviews: Movie Review Query Engine