To be fair, I’m not a big fan of westerns. It’s not that they’re bad films, they’re just not terribly appealing. Dusty men riding horseback across barren wastelands is not enticing. I’m an alien invasion dude. Alien spaceships? Explosions? Pew pew? I’m on board! So when the trailer debuted for Cowboys & Aliens, Jon Favreau’s latest joint (you know, the guy who gave us Iron Man) I was hesitant about the genre mash-up. Unfortunately, and despite its best intentions, the film just isn’t a satisfying venture in either direction.
Just like the trailer, Jake (Daniel Craig) comes to in the middle of a desert with a hot case of amnesia and a heavy bracelet on his arm that he begins to chip away at, 127 hours-style. He ends up in Absolution, a town that’s close to blowing into the desert if not for Dolarhyde’s (Harrison Ford) regular cattle trains. Jake fends for himself against the herder’s belligerent son (Paul Dano) and when the two of them are taken into custody – Jake has a history of violence, so to speak – Dolarhyde decides to show up to reclaim his son. Then aliens attack, abducting many of the town’s folk.
I mentioned that it’s unfortunate that the film just can’t do either genre well. In a (decent) alien invasion flick, you get to experience well-designed aliens that are well on their way to destroying humanity if not for the inevitable deus ex machina (computer virus, exposed exhaust port, water) that saves them. This means they tend to be over the top in order to compensate for their massive logic holes. In a western, you get time to develop characters as they crawl across the hills, gazing at beautiful, serene landscapes. Here you don’t, and that’s a bit of a shame.
While Daniel Craig plays the badass with the ray gun, the real highlight is Harrison Ford as the complex, bitter, angry Dolarhyde. Had the film been directed as more of a western-proper with a longer running time (which seems like an odd request considering how many movies are self-indulgent two-hour-plus special effects fests these days) they could’ve really developed his character, and many others, further. Instead, the film wanders from set piece to set piece with little sense of rising action while carrying too many characters. Sam Rockwell is intriguing as Doc, a pathetic, proto-Ned Flanders bartender, but Olivia Wilde’s character doesn’t need to exist at all.
When the film rumbles to its climax, complete with sets that feel pulled straight from Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, you begin to realize how low the stakes really are. In the end, you just feel indifferent about the whole affair since you haven’t been given enough time or reason to invest in anything the film gives you. I’d really like to see Favreau grow beyond his Iron Man reputation, and while we dismiss that film’s bloated sequel and recognize that so many big names were tied to this film’s production (from Spielberg to Grazer), this really wasn’t Favreau’s best first stop.