I don’t have any privileged information about how blockbusters get made. As a Hollywood outsider, my best guess is that some rich guy sends an intern down to the comic book store and options every title the kid brings back, so long as it doesn’t feature tentacle sex. The movie biz’s comic-adaptation cavalcade comprises classic fare like Captain America: The First Avenger as well as new-school productions like Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. The latest, Cowboys & Aliens (Universal), represents a third way, one that’s the inevitable result of market forces. Scott Mitchell Rosenberg sold the film rights to his Hondo-meets-UFO comic nine years before the series came into existence, when it was nothing more than a one-sheet poster. By 2013, I predict every film studio will have a department of “pre-crime” comic scouts, wherein dedicated staffers scan the globe for ink stains and stray pencil marks.
Cowboys & Aliens shows the obvious faults of the buy-now/write-later approach. It’s all hat and no cattle. It’s also, simultaneously, all goo and no spaceship. Instead of merging the Western and the sci-fi genre to form some new, transcendent class of popcorn fare, Cowboys & Aliens just regurgitates the conventions of both genres. Double the high concept, quadruple the clichés.
The movie’s best sequence comes before the credits roll. Jake Lonergan (Daniel Craig) wakes up in the desert with a gash in his abdomen and a weird-looking gadget cuffed around his arm. As he tries to break the gizmo with a rock, a gang of gun-toting ruffians ride up and start talking tough. Lonergan sizes them up and, in the fashion of Troy Polamalu, takes a flying leap that knocks the toughest-looking hombre off his horse. He pounds his would-be assailants until he’s covered with their blood, then rides across the barren landscape on a pilfered horse, red dust kicking up in his wake.
Lonergan, like Jason Bourne, doesn’t remember anything except how to be a total badass. Not long after he lands in a dead-end mining settlement, he gets locked up for kneeing a sassy local punk (Paul Dano) in the nethers. While the entitled brat totally deserved it, his father is Woodrow Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford)—the richest man in town and a guy you really don’t want to piss off.
Before anything can come of this—spoiler alert if you haven’t read past the ampersand—the aliens attack. This is a ludicrous spectacle, one that could only possibly work if it’s played for campy fun. Instead, Cowboys & Aliens establishes a menacing tone in its opening few minutes, one that a six-shooter-and-UFO combo platter can’t possibly sustain. While there’s some comic relief baked into the script, largely from Sam Rockwell’s nebbishy bartender Doc, this is still a movie that expects you not to laugh when a horse keeps pace with a flying saucer. Too often, Cowboys & Aliens is ridiculous without being silly—the butt of its own joke.
Handed a premise that demands ingenuity, director Jon Favreau and a convoy of screenwriters fall back on a deep collection of movie-land tropes. The Indians are a noble, indistinct people with a mystical connection to the spirit world. The aliens—who have no personality or back story—are discards from H.R. Giger’s sketchbook. The space creatures first appear when a drunk guy has his pants down. A fiddler stops playing when a fight breaks out at the local saloon. The only way any of this stuff will elicit yelps of excitement is if Cowboys & Aliens gets screened during a round of hack-script bingo.
Favreau, who also directed Iron Man and Iron Man 2, would’ve made a better movie if he had Robert Downey Jr. on set. As James Bond, Craig is the world’s most-convincing action hero because he’s perfectly suited for human-scale violence. Bond, though, does not play well with beasties from outer space. Olivia Wilde, as a woman who’s desperate for Lonergan to shake off his amnesia, is totally affectless, endowing her role with no sparkle or wit. Only the creaky, cranky Ford, who has yet to encounter a script he couldn’t wink at, seems like he’s at home in a world of spurs and spacecraft.
It’s fun to think about what Cowboys & Aliens might have been if any creativity had crept past the title page. Instead of bonding over their shared humanity, it would’ve been fascinating to see the cowboys and Indians take opposite sides in the movie’s climactic intergalactic battle. Cowboys & Aliens vs. Indians would’ve been a far superior film, as would’ve Cowboys vs. Aliens & Indians. Or Cowboys vs. Aliens & Indians & Predator. What we’re left with instead is a dumb movie that thinks it’s smart.