Cowboys and Aliens

Oddly enough, at least two people have asked me what this film is about.  Like Snakes on a Plane, the title pretty much says it all.  The setting is New Mexico, 1873.  Daniel Craig plays Jake Lonergan, an outlaw drifter.  Harrison Ford plays Woodrow Dolarhyde, a ruthless ranch owner.  Olivia Wilde plays Ella Swenson, a mysterious woman who seems to know more than she should.  They are going about their usual horse opera business when aliens attack and start abducting people.

The film is directed by Jon Favreau, fresh from his Iron Man duties.  Favreau shows considerable promise as a filmmaker.  The first Iron Man movie is immensely entertaining and the second one is not as bad as its reputation.  But thus far, I think, his films have had more promising than delivering.  And I think the reason for that is he has a problem with perspective.  He hasn’t developed a knack for seeing the big picture.  He’s great at creating moments but up to now those moments stand alone and don’t support the overall structure.

For instance, there is a scene where Dolarhyde gives a young kid a knife and then tells the kid the story of how he got it.  The story illustrates a life lesson about growing up and doing the hard but right thing.  But that lesson doesn’t really resonate with anything in the film’s plot.  The kid faces a trial in the last reel but it’s not in any way reminiscent of Dolarhyde’s story.  It’s profundity in search of a theme.

That dilemma is echoed throughout the film.  Favreau and the gang of screenwriters (there are at least six) are taking this high concept mash up and trying to give it as much psychological depth as The Searchers or Red River.  Leaving aside the fact that these attempts are clumsy and ill-aimed, it undermines the joke of the title.  A movie called Cowboys and Aliens should be a romp, a rollercoaster good time with just enough characterization to make us care what happens.  If you want to go any deeper into the motivations of the characters, call it something else like Cowboys and Alienation.

On the positive side, it is a pretty film.  The scenery is breathtaking; the town looks like it could be a nice place to live, nestled at the foot of the mountains.  For the most part, the action scenes are exciting.   Daniel Craig turns in a cool tough performance as an amnesiac gunslinger with incredible fighting instincts but with no memory of how he got them.   Harrison Ford channels John Wayne ala Red River as a hard man, difficult to deal with, but well meaning.  The rest of the cast is pretty good too, or at least not distractingly bad.

The main problem is that the filmmakers never really had a coherent vision for this film, which is a shame.


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July 2011
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