The opening scenes in Cowboys and Aliens are maybe the slowest action-wise in the entire movie. They would be perfectly acceptable in a 1970s rodeo flick, one that has a desert whistling score and some deputy-bandit dialogue. But this movie is called Cowboys and Aliens, and after a while, the formalities of the Main Street broo-ha begin to beckon for an extra-terrestrial pickup.
To his credit, Jon Favreau, the director of this western/ sci-fi blockbuster, needed some foundation for his film to take flight. Part of this process meant convincing enough people, and maybe even himself, that Daniel Craig, the acclaimed british spy could put on a Dr. Jones cap, rub some sweat off his brow, and sound like a regular southwest shooter. The gamble pays off. He does keep Mr. Bond’s fighting tactics however, but they’re noticeably dynamic, especially after 3 whiskeys at the local tavern. He mounts his stolen horse, puts on the spurs, and giddyups into town clearly a force not to reckoned with.
Craig plays Jake Lonergan, who wakes up in the desert with Jason Bourne like amnesia but still possessing an unbeatable punch. He has a strange gash in his side and an impenetrable, mysterious metal bracelet up his wrist and decides to ride into town to patch his wound and his memory. It’s there he finds himself an outlaw as well as a town supplemented with typical character clichés. Theres the weapon smart preacher (Clancy Brown), the passive doctor (Sam Rockwell), a guilt-free gun slinger (Paul Dano), and his cattle rancher father, the town’s lone financier and step father to an adopted Indian, played by Harrison Ford. And instead of a small asian kid yelling Doctah Jones, its a shy deputy’s son (Noah Wringer) who looks to Ford for manhood.
Then of course there is Olivia Wilde, one of only two main women in the entire film, who plays Ella Swenson, someone completely entranced by outlaw Jake and his inability to remember. Then spaceships dive toward the earth, rocketing blue lasers and fiery explosions upon the vulnerable wooden town. The space crafts scorch the dirt and in the process use whip-like rope to snatch people from the ground and up into the sky. Ella seems to be a bit less scared than her fellow towners, somewhat out of place like her pristine groomed features amidst the dusty rubble. Her look is attractive and seductive, but like many of the minor characters is too clean cut for the grit of the 1870s.
What happens next is almost too predictable. Rival-holders put their temporary grudges aside and unite to go bring back family and friends and find out what this intergalactic presence really is. Craig leads the pack, struggling with his memory, but his individual charisma still has enough tear to keep his crew intact and alive. Ford on the other hand has a tough love shield that must be preemptively cracked, a more complex sub hero than we have been accustomed to. Indians get involved, and different languages must be spoken to garner respect, a more interesting subplot at points than their ultimate quest. Ella continues to jog Jake’s memory amidst his wrist zapping of tiredly familiar rendered aliens.
The story for the film was drafted by 7 writers, yes that’s right 7, and it becomes clear there is lack of focus. Favreau takes what I am assuming to be a compromised script and makes an enthralling attempt at a strong crescendo, but minor deviations keep it from majorly excelling. Part of the problem for the Iron Man director is his penchant for incorporating mementos from other films, and in this day and age its hard not to. He incorporates the gusto of recent themed films combining 3:10 to Yuma’s angst with District 9’s subversive alien population. Pitting the cavernous outback of True Grit with the curiously uncharted nature of Cloverfield, which just happened to be directed by JJ Abrams, a collaborator with Spielberg already this year.
This just might be the fault of an overguiding presence. Steven Spielberg, infamous for his alien and human interactions has his producer tag on this summer flick as well and it seems Favreau’s creativity is bridled by the looming Spielberg shadow.Yet what Favreau misses in clear direction he makes up for with a sensitive approach to each character. It seems as though in most Spielberg based movies the human element is what rises above the shaky mythology of outer space life. Whether, in Cowboys and Aliens, it’s the loyal barking dog, a boy getting his first real knife, or the bartender learning how to shoot a gun, theres enough pull to root for them, how far that pull goes, well that depends on how much you like blood thirsty aliens and uncharacteristically worn cowboy hats.
There is no lack of action however, and that may be this movie’s greatest strength as its descriptive title may show. Daniel Craig’s blue eyes pop from the screen because everything surrounding him is orange cavern or fiery molten rock. It’s almost like Favreau made his movie budget surrounding the investment of Tony Stark enterprises, especially with that nifty wrist gun. All that heat, smoke, and dust is enough to parch your throat at points, which makes you wonder why water is only offered once the entire movie. The sky is filled with the super natural, and the ground apparently with superhuman hydration.
One thing is for sure though; entertainment value this summer has been through the roof explosion wise. Whether you include plot substance a part of entertainment may redefine the “blockbusters” this year. Sure to bring in a pretty penny, Cowboys and Aliens has a little bit of everything: Indians, Aliens, and Cowboys, but not a lot of something. But then again, the title is Cowboys and Aliens. What did you expect?