Perhaps it would be unreasonable to expect Jon Favreau’s Cowboys and Aliens to live up to its nutty high concept, but as the flaccid, soulless, festering end product stands now, it’s a testament to a complete waste of limitless potential and a rock-solid cast, not to mention 165 million dollars. That obscene budget doesn’t factor in the costs of a supersaturation ad campaign or all the overtime paid to the overworked, sleep deprived ILM techies slaving away at computer consoles running the latest version of Maya, rendering photorealistic, goopy CGI extraterrestrials for months on end in order to meet an impossible deadline. While the film convincingly masquerades as a generic Western for the first reel and a half, CGI overload soon kicks in, ever escalating toward a migraine-inducing, incomprehensible, clangorous third act filled with plot conveniences, deus-ex-machina rescues, cringeworthy attempts at humor, and laughably half-assed grasping at some kind of underlying moral to the whole agonizing mess. What else would you expect from the brain trust behind the Transformers trilogy and the insipid Iron Man saga? At the same time it is kind of fascinating as a singular piece of cultural detritus, an inexplicable fusion of 1970s New Hollywood cynicism with the mind-numbing spectacle of today.
We start conventionally enough with Daniel Craig, the mysterious rugged stranger and requisite Man with No Name, awakening in the desert with amnesia, a nonfatal thorax wound, and a bizarre electronic doodad affixed to his wrist. After dispatching a trio of filthy scalphunters, he makes his way to the ironically named cookie-cutter hamlet of Absolution, and within minutes is getting some topnotch frontier surgery from drunken doctor/priest Clancy Brown, which is interrupted by gunfire from the official Town Miscreant, a delightfully weaselly Paul Dano. Turns out he’s been extorting booze from meek barkeep Sam Rockwell by bullying-by-proxy with threats of retribution from his Paw, a local livestock baron, Civil War veteran and all-purpose surly rich asshole named Dollarhyde (surely a reference to the psychotic Tooth Fairy from Red Dragon). If you’re keeping count of all the Western cliches, you’ve already used up all ten of your fingers by now and are starting to count with your toes; keep in mind we aren’t even into the second reel yet.
Right on schedule, Craig asserts his dominance and disables a petulant Dano without uncrossing his arms, enabling the grizzled yet kindly town Sheriff (a nigh-unrecognizable Keith Carradine) to throw the shrimp into lockup. But wouldn’t you know it, turns out our ostensible hero is a wanted outlaw named Jake Lonergan, boasting a list of offenses longer than this film’s credits. Needless to say, our protagonist barely has enough time to knock back a couple complementary shots of whiskey, and reject the rather aggressive advances of fair maiden Olivia Wilde (née Cockburn) before Carradine and his deputies stride in and get manhandled by the hesitantly badass hero. Apropos enough, since he rejects the lady’s advances for no reason other than his boilerplate Reluctant Protagonist Beat Sheet demands it, she knocks him out with the butt of a long rifle for no reason other than the necessity of the Act 2 Plot Point.
Rounding out the roster of Western stock characters is Harrison Ford as the one-dimensional Dollarhyde; though his dramatic introduction is meant to be both a knowing wink at the audience and a surprise reveal, the shock of seeing Ford’s craggy visage and hearing his snarling gravelly voice will be spoiled considerably by anyone who’s been exposed to the film’s relentless ad campaign. Ford is introduced during a very strange, brutal sequence in which he tortures a a helpless flunky by stretching him between two opposite-facing horses, while accusing him of “blowing up my cattle”; natch, he refuses to believe the flunky’s truthful assertion that aliens fired an explosive pulse at him and his fellow cowhands, and fixates on the cockamamie idea that the flunky somehow gets off on exploding his boss’s livestock (and fellow cowhands).
Dollarhyde’s fixing to re-enact a certain scene from The Hitcher when he gets word that Dano’s in the pokey; instead of pulling him in twain, he cuts one of the ropes and sends the lead horse away at full gallop, presumably dragging the flunky over miles of rough terrain to a prolonged, painful demise. Of course the screenplay by Michael Bay whores Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci doesn’t bother to delve into Dollarhyde’s terrifying character; he’s a stick figure there solely to drive the miserable plot forward. He doesn’t even have time to develop as an antagonist because soon, oh so very soon, the horseshit’s about to hit the cotton gin fan.
Let’s start by spoiling the obvious: Those Fucking Aliens.
Who are they? What are they? Where did they come from? Even when everything’s explained in a boring, massive, unimaginative and interminable exposition dump, the answers to these basic questions are still frustratingly oblique. One thing we do know beyond the shadow of a doubt is that they time all their attacks with clockwork precision. No sooner than Ford and his torch-bearing army of thugs are confronting mellow, peace-loving Sheriff Carradine as he loads the two shackled prisoners into the stagecoach, and the plot is threatening to become interesting, those damned aliens show up and begin decimating the Greater Absolution Metropolitan Area. Then, in the first of many lazy plot conveniences, Lonergan’s mechanical wrist bracelet begins whirring and beeping and blooping and projecting holographic readouts; for some reason Craig acts stoic and kind of bored when this magical plot device begins doing its witchcraft. Within seconds he’s blasted himself out of the stage, broken Dano’s arm, and shot down an alien spacecraft in as blase a manner as humanly possible; meanwhile all manner of townsfolk are being lassoed by these ships and yanked violently into the air, turning them into CGI stunt doubles in the blink of an eye.
Presumably because it would involve logical leaps too extreme for even this script to solve with some psuedo-scientific quasi-mystical Vietnam-was-a-just-war the remaining townsfolk are guided to the aliens’ not-so-discreet headquarters by the pilot of the shot-down spacecraft, who somehow managed to transport him/her/itself from the wreckage and flee the battlefield, leaving behind a trail of slime and comically large footprints. There isn’t even an attempt at explaining how this happens, it simply happens because the almighty Plot must be driven forward with as little downtime as possible. Anyone with half a brain can surmise, from here, where the alien track will lead the posse of survivors, who will lead this posse, the dynamics among all the posse members, and the order in which they will be picked off for the obligatory attempts at pathos.
It’s a shame that talented character actors like Clancy Brown and Sam Rockwell have to waste their formidable talents delivering exposition to a sleeping theatre. There is an early scene, clearly improvised, where the two riff off each other hilariously; a much better movie could have been made about these two clowns trying to defeat the alien menace. The lush anamorphic photography of Matthew Libatique starts off agreeably vivid and auburn-tinted, then gets progressively drearier and browner until we wind up in murky Heaven’s Gate territory.
So why do the evil E.T.’s abduct the humans? Because the Plot demands it. Because it would have been way too easy for the humans to avoid the conflict altogether by forming a wagon train and skedaddling Eastward. As we learn after a head-splittingly retarded plot contrivance, which facilitates the aforesaid Massive Exposition Dump (a scene involving a gaggle of Native American extras straight out of Central Casting, a scenery-gobbling Harrison Ford and a bowl full of peyote extract), these unnamed, personality-free extraterrestrial evildoers are little more than interstellar gold prospectors dissecting Earthlings as a kind of hobby, sort of, I guess. Like much of their motivation, save for the gold mining bullshit, it’s left entirely to the imagination and based entirely on cliches. In other words, they’re no more well-rounded than the cast of humans. At least Kurtzman and Orci are consistent in their laziness.
Favreau, too, is becoming increasingly consistent with his soulless, generic, hyper-commercial mass-market spectacle flicks; Iron Man was the death knell for this once promising indie filmmaker, but that wasteful, pointless project was Bergman-level compared to the completely whitewashed studio slickness of Cowboys and Aliens. Whereas Iron Man was consistently hijacked by a maniacal, constantly improvising Robert Downey Jr. and stood out from the homogeneous pack of superhero garbage as a result, Cowboys is entirely subservient to a deadening, formulaic screenplay that leaves precious little breathing room for characterization and a series of monotonous CGI action sequences that are every bit as soporific and inscrutable as John Ford’s action was fiery, urgent, and immaculately choreographed. He barely moves his camera, favoring boring static shots edited to a sluggish, logy rhythm. The prosaic, unmemorable, entirely generic and un-Western-like score by Harry Gregson-Williams does no favors for the film’s energy either.
By the time we lumber to the conclusion, involving alien architecture inspired by ideas lifted from H.R. Giger’s rubbish bin, more plot conveniences courtesy of the Magical Alien Bracelet, and the laughable reveal of the film’s ultimate (and only) antagonist, what little spark the film had has long since dimmed, Favreau is just feebly trying to end the damn thing, and worst of all, it shows. There’s no passion behind the scenes, no real purpose or ultimate message or creativity in sight. After a jaw-droppingly lame action beat consisting of Craig firing his Magic Bracelet into a tunnel, gorily decimating wave after wave of humanoid goopy Space Invaders with no apparent effort or strategy involved, the evil alien doctor, who I’ll christen “Doctor Scarface”, shows up and menaces our hero for a good minute or two before a deus-ex-machina cavalry rescue reduces Scarface to a pile of CGI spunk. Then there’s yet another dramatic suicide bombing drenched in pathetic greater-good nonsense (though the film would have been genuinely subversive had the Preacher survived and claimed God was going to reward him in Paradise before blowing himself to smithereens), which is starting to become kind of a disturbing trend in Hollywood movies oriented toward Westernized Christian audiences.
The cynicism mentioned earlier isn’t so much contained within the barebones screenplay as it is within the formulaic, lockstep construction of the film itself. The purpose of Cowboys and Aliens isn’t to enlighten or even subvert its mashed-up genres. This often happens with strange genre hybrids – neither genre is given its due and the ultimate product is a formless mess. This was a product to facilitate further merchandising – action figures, tie-in video games, comic books. There is not the slightest attempt to be clever, save for the final scene. The evil capitalist Dollarhyde and his son, who just needed a Close Encounter to bring them down to earth (so to speak) have inherited the town as well as the gold mine established by the extraterrestrial prospectors. Despite having a wrecked spacecraft in the middle of the town square, and a few dozen alien corpses in the desert, their technology hasn’t advanced one iota, and what should be a haven for the world’s scientific minds to contemplate and reverse-engineer inconceivable technology, not to mention examine the origins of organic life, is instead just another boring railroad town. Nobody mentions the aliens after the climactic suicide bombing. The status quo has returned, the bad guys have triumphed and will doubtless continue their legacy of corruption for generations to come, ruling over this town with an iron fist full of blood money. The film implies that the very existence of the aliens has been completely covered up.
As for our protagonist, who let’s not forget is an erstwhile outlaw and murderer, every woman who has dared accept his loving caresses has met a horrible death at the hands of aliens, and his brain chemistry is irrevocably screwed up by a potent combination of alien mind-wiping, PTSD, and alcoholism. Does he stay to become Dollarhyde’s lieutenant in his new reign of terror? Regretfully not, although that would have been an ultimately cynical way to end the picture. Instead he rides off alone to his all-too-inevitable fate as a brain-damaged loner destined for a bleak future as a deranged hermit. The ruthless tycoons win, the men of honor either die for nothing (at least disclosing the existence of the aliens would have validated the horrible deaths of all those Native Americans) or become permanently mind-fucked. Those in the audience will also be mind-fucked in the sense that more and more of their brain cells will rot away with every passing minute of the running time. As Kanbei says at the end of Seven Samurai, “They are the winners. Not us.”