What do you make of a film that seems too serious for its premise? That's the problem I had with Cowboys & Aliens.
It's usually a problem when there are a lot of names associated with a project, and Cowboys & Aliens is no exception. Jon Favreau directed (same guy who did Elf and Iron Man). The list of producers includes Ron Howard and his partner Brian Grazer, Kurtzman and Orci (the team who did the updated Star Trek), Damon Lindelof and Scott Mitchell Rosenberg. If you've lost count, that's six people. There are five writers credited, none of them the writers of the graphic novel the movie was based on.
Eleven opinionated people equals a big pile of box office crap, apparently. All I can do is wonder if somehow the fun implied by the movie's title got lost in translation somewhere.
As an action film, the movie is meh. The battle sequences weren't much to look at. The special effects were average at best. The scenery was beautiful, I'll admit, but the costuming was average. Visually, the movie just didn't work.
In a case like that, you hope that the plot and acting will take up the slack, but that didn't happen here. The acting was dull and labored. Harrison Ford stood out as especially bad. He's not the kind of actor you expect to give an Oscar to, but he is normally okay in action films. Here, his stilted, humorless delivery seemed to underscore the movie's inability to decide what it was doing and why it was doing it.
The writing was also sadly lacking. Spoiler alert: The aliens have come to steal our gold, because gold is rare in their world too. Does that mean they use it for money? For fuel? For snacking? I don't know. They also rustle people, to study humans, although they don't really need to do that. All they need to do is park their spaceship above a supply of gold, heat it to melting, and vacuum it up with their alien technology. So, their kidnapping of people makes no sense and serves no purpose except to get the plot going because the cast is attacked, people are stolen, and the remaining people set up a posse to find their missing kin. Again, meh. Who cares?
What's worse is that nearly every stereotype in the book is thrown into the movie, but without any commentary whatsoever. That makes the film seem unimaginative. You get the frontier preacher, the easterner who can't shoot, the fat Mexican, the mean cattle rancher who fought in the Civil War, his no-account son, Indians who can't speak English and pass around the hallucinogens, the pretty woman who knows more than she is telling, and the criminal being hunted by the law.
The only thing you don't get is a black slave. In fact, there are no people of color at all in the movie (except the fat Mexican). It's true that a lot of old Westerns didn't use black actors either. But is it all that hard to imagine a black man in a frontier town, especially after the Civil War? Or an Asian, given the immigration of the Chinese into California and other parts of the West in the 1800s?
But the excessive use of stereotypes without commentary makes the exclusion of minorities stand out. It's as though either the filmmakers were so racist as to ignore minorities altogether, or -- and perhaps this is the worse alternative -- they did include a scene or two, but it was so racist that even the studio heads who greenlit this project objected to it. Either way, the lack is noticeable and embarrassing for the filmmakers.
Cowboys & Aliens could have been funny. It could have been clever. It was neither. If you want to see a real satire of a genre movie that also has some good action and good acting, see Shaun of the Dead, which has the intelligence to ask the question, "What's the difference between a normal day of your life and a zombie apocalypse?" The answer in Shaun is, "Not much." Everything about the movie plays to that answer, and the film is very funny.
Cowboy & Aliens doesn't seem to be asking a question at all. Even if the question had been, "How can we make this idea cool?" and the answer, "Here's how," I might have bought it. But no. There's nothing to buy here. It's all garage sale junk. Spend your money elsewhere, and don't bother wasting your time on this load of trash. You can do much, much better.
Copyright (c) 2011 by Michele Chiappetta. All rights reserved.