Given that this film was given a very public dressing down by the head of the studio that produced it, I’d oddly had high hopes of riding to its defence. Said Ron Meyers, President of Universal Studios about Cowboys and Aliens:
Wasn’t good enough. Forget all the smart people involved in it, it wasn’t good enough. All those little creatures bouncing around were crappy. I think it was a mediocre movie. We misfired. We were wrong. We did it badly, and I think we’re all guilty of it.
Surely that’s harsh? Given a great premise (cowboys coming face to face to alien monsters!) and a wonderful cast to die for (Daniel Craig, Harrison Ford, Keith Carradine, Paul Dano, Clancy Brown) could it really be that much of a letdown? Well unfortunately, it turns out that Mr Meyers was pretty much spot on with his assessment: this is simply a very mediocre film.
Sometimes you stir in two unusual ingredients (in this case, blending western and science fiction genres) and you end up with something extra-special. But sometimes you just find those ingredients actively turn against each other and you end up instead with something significantly less than the sum of the parts. This sadly is very much the latter.
So what exactly goes wrong? For one thing, the aliens are little more than undercooked “impact players”: for most of the movie they appear out of no where with no warning, attack, and then disappear again. Director Jon Favreau (who did so well with Iron Man) apparently does not intend to try and induce tension or excitement in these scenes at all, and so while they’re loud and startling and well executed, they’re also brief and jarring rather than thrilling and suspenseful.
But what these scenes definitely do manage to do is to make the rest of the film – the western/cowboy sequences – seem flat and dull by comparison. You’re waiting for the next appearance by the aliens instead of being allowed to immerse yourself in these sequences, which seem like just so much time-filling artificial scene-setting before the main event but are in fact the vast majority of the film. It doesn’t help that these scenes are slow paced and seek to breath life into characters that are achingly crude stereotypes. Where character arcs and plots are set up, it’s painfully obvious; the pay-offs for each when they come are therefore thuddingly dull and awkwardly delivered when they finally arrive late in the film. It feels like a box-ticking exercise: story strand for the sheriff’s grandson? One scene set-up, one scene fulfilment. Check. Next.
It’s as if the writers know that they need to have interesting and rounded characters and emotional stories to carry the film, but simply have no idea how to do it except by applying the most exceedingly obvious western clichés plucked from every cowboy film they’ve ever seen. Crusty, bad-tempered land owners with a wastrel son and a noble but despised half-American Indian “adopted son,” cowardly bar owner, mysterious stranger with no name – you get the idea. It’s all the more odd how amateurish all this clunking script construction feels when you see that the script is written by Star Trek reboot writers Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman (although the warning sign is that they were also guilty of Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen!) along with another longtime JJ Abrams collaborator Damon Lindelof of Lost fame. Maybe the clue lies in that the trio are among seven who share the story credits – too many chefs is usually the sign of a kitchen in crisis.
All this means that even when things hot up in the final reel with some half-decent action sequences, the whole thing still feels trite and airless. It’s as if having taken the studio’s money, everyone suddenly realised they were obliged to follow through and deliver it – competently enough – even though their hearts were no longer in it. At least Daniel Craig gives a solid performance at the centre; Harrison Ford simply looks old and embarrassed to be working with such wavering, inconsistent material while Sam Rockwell is oddly anonymous. Two of the most promising characters – those played by Keith Carradine and Paul Dano – exit far too early in proceedings. Olivia Wilde is the obligatory female presence, here playing a role seemingly fashioned after Gandalf but significantly less believable in an underwritten and developed part.
A protracted epilogue delivers nothing of any importance, and then the credits roll. It hasn’t been a particularly bad film; you can’t get exercised about how dreadful it is. There’s just a deep sigh as you reach for the off button, an inescapable feeling of melancholy and disappointment – of millions of studio dollars and two hours of one’s viewing life that could have been spent on something far more deserving than this display of rote filmmaking by numbers.
On the Blu-ray: a perfunctory number of extras underscores how much everyone wanted to be done with this project and not spend too much more time on it if they could help it. Picture-wise, the exterior desert scenes look wonderful: sharp and bright and detailed and a pleasure to look at, with the CGI effects well integrated into them. Less successful on my set-up were the night time sequences (and there are several) which appeared murky, dusty, soft and undistinguished, with less than solid blacks and too many details bleeding into the general gloom.
I guess it’s a two-star film. Rent it if you will, but don’t hope for anything too much and maybe that way it will surpass your expectations and give you a half-decent night’s viewing. You won’t miss it when you’re done and you hand it back, though.