1873. Arizona Territory. A stranger with no memory of his past stumbles into the hard desert town of Absolution. The only hint to his history is a mysterious shackle that encircles one wrist. What he discovers is that the people of Absolution don’t welcome strangers, and nobody makes a move on its streets unless ordered to do so by the iron-fisted Colonel Dolarhyde. It’s a town that lives in fear
Cowboys & Aliens follows a tradition of B-movies with a title that shows knowing complicity in the fun that will ensue. It is a trend, recently revived by the cult hit Snakes on a Plane, that shows sometimes people like silly films that do what they say on the tin. Indeed, Snakes on a Plane was a triumph of silliness – a self-conscious but brilliantly fun pastiche of humour and action.
Cowboys & Alien’s pedigree is strong – Jon Favreau at the helm, a veritable who’s who exec producing, big budget and a glittering A-list cast – this was surely a recipe for success. And it might well be. The box office takings are likely to be healthy.
But this is not a great film. The real tragedy of Cowboys & Aliens is that with all that talent, money and good-will, Favreau has failed to make a satisfying or sufficiently fun B-movie. It should have been better, there’s almost no excuse for it not being better. So what went wrong?
Announcing the theme so ostentatiously in the title is a wink to the audience. It says; ‘we’re making this look like a mega budget, blockbusting summer romp that Spielberg exec produced, but really its just going to be a lot of fun – and you are in on the joke’.
The downfall of Cowboys & Aliens is that its title is as far as the joke goes. Very quickly it becomes clear that this film takes itself very seriously indeed. Daniel Craig’s steely-eyed performance is serious and impressive at times, but entirely humourless. The absurd plot unfolds, but with a po-face that soon suggests that this is not in fact a B-movie. Perhaps its title came about because they simply could not think of something better – the clever winks and nods to the audience that this reviewer assumed were present – were actually more a product of expectation than reality.
There are impressive set-piece battles and moments of thrill. Harrison Ford – also playing it straight – is not the only nod to Indiana Jones. But Indiana Jones was playful and witty in its execution and this is anything but.
Olivia Wilde’s improbable beauty grates with the rough Wild West motif (though a partial explanation for this is offered, it is still distracting for two thirds of the film). Sam Rockwell, one of the finest, funniest and most interesting actors at the moment is shockingly under-used. His precious few moments on screen hint at the film we so desperately want it to be – the witty, self-conscious, yet big budget fare. If Rockwell played the title role, it seems likely that this film would have been all of those things.
But unfortunately we are left with an overly serious film that never truly reconciles its Wild West and science fiction themes. Whole swathes of the film take place entirely without science fiction and so the moments when aliens are present, it feels like an accident of editing between two very different films. Favreau’s ultimate failure is by not moderating the tone in order to achieve seamless integration of these unlikely themes. Surely the use of humour would have gone a long way to achieving this. A missed opportunity.