Thursday, August 4, 2011

Cowboys & Aliens (2011)

I think there's a basic rule of thumb: if you can tell the entire plot of a film from it's title, then said film is probably worth skipping. Snakes on a Plane, though promising to be rollicking fun, proved this rule, and now Cowboys & Aliens, a lifeless drag through genre-mashing that Hollywood really hopes everyone wants to see, has given this theory more credit.

In Tombstone, 1870, Jake Lonergan (Daniel Craig) wakes up in the middle of the desert, with no memory and a strange metal contraption strapped to his wrist. He finds his way into town, where his interference in an altercation between the town doctor (Sam Rockwell) and a rambuncous young man (Paul Dano) alerts the authorities of his outlaw status, landing him in jail with the latter, who happens to be the son of the much-feared Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford). When Dolarhyde rides into town to get his son out of jail, the town is ambushed by otherworldly visitors, whom the denizens dub "demons." Jake must team up with Dolarhyde and the rest of the posse of townspeople to find the aliens and rescue their people.

The film is based on a comic book series by Scott Mitchell Rosenberg, and for some reason the film needed a startling large number of writers: Steve Oedekerk (Bruce Almighty), Damon Lindelof (Lost), Alex Kurtzman & Roberto Orci (Transformers) and Mark Fergus & Hawk Ostby (Children of Men) all have their names on the screenplay. Surely this is a classic case of "too many cooks," but it doesn't seem like any of them really cared too much about the story, as it reaches increasing heights of ridiculousness. There's also more plot holes than a piece of Swiss cheese, with characters shifting personalities and things happening with little reason or explanation, to say nothing of the persistence of American white-guilt toward Native Americans and some questionable taste (one shot at the end of the film disturbingly recalls the Challenger tragedy). 

The biggest problem with the film is that there's a complete lack of energy. Director Jon Favreau has made a career, both as an actor and as a director, out of films that are built on a sense of fun, making cinematic experiences that surely aren't deep but only because they're not trying to be. It seems so unfortunately bizarre, then, that he would choose to play it straight and serious on his most ridiculous premise yet. The actors, too, seem to be bored. You can see behind Craig's soulful blue eyes that he's not interested in what's happening, and Ford can barely muster more than a faint growl. Rockwell must have needed the paycheck, and Dano (as well as Justified's Walton Goggins) hams it up, apparently trying to make up for everyone else's ennui. And Olivia Wilde tries very, very hard to make a character out of what is essentially a formless plot device, but she comes off like a dinner-theater actress overacting just to get people to look up from their Porterhouses for just a second and pay attention to her.

I tweeted shortly after seeing this that there are few films that I regret seeing, but Cowboys & Aliens has joined that (dis)honorable club. A little bit of fun couldn't have saved this film from it's erratic plot, but it sure would have gone a long way in making this film at least enjoyable. The title basically begged for camp; why deny it? D

*Why a D when I mostly just complained about how terrible it is? Because for the first 10 minutes, it had the makings of a halfway decent Western. Then it all went to hell.

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