Too many cooks (writers) spoil the plotBottom Highlights, Movie Review Thursday, August 4th, 2011
MOVIE REVIEW: When I first saw the poster for Cowboys & Aliens, I got excited. These are two great tastes that haven’t yet gone together, but should. Five years ago, that’s what I said about chocolate and bacon. Now you can buy bacon chocolate bars everywhere. (Well, maybe not everywhere. But soon, I hope.)
Two of the great American film genres, the Western and the sci-fi action film, seem incongruous, even odd together, but they have a great deal in common. Both the Western and the sci-fi action film are, often, about honorable underdogs who must fight evil in the form of the corrupt (evil cattle barons or the Galactic Empire), the criminal (bank robbers or super-corporations of the future) or the racial other (Indians or green reptilian monsters from a distant solar system). Mixing the two genres would give the filmmakers all sorts of interesting material to work with, crazy juxtapositions and surprising plot twists. Or not.
More than any film this summer, I had extremely high hopes for Cowboys & Aliens. The concept was so fresh, and director Jon Favreau’s Ironman films were both so exciting and so much fun. And he cast the smoldering and magnetic Daniel Craig as the lead cowboy and arguably the greatest action star in history, Harrison Ford, as the second lead. James Bond and Indiana Jones together!
But concept and cast are nothing without a story and a screenplay, and when I was watching the opening credits and saw five – count ‘em – credited screenwriters, I predicted, correctly, that I was about to be disappointed. Once a screenplay gets rewritten as many times as this, indicated by that many hired hands it ends up, as Cowboys & Aliens did, neutered and messy, confused by too many themes and inconsistent characterizations.
The film starts out with Daniel Craig wandering through the old New Mexican countryside, sporting amnesia and a mysterious, high-tech metal bracelet. When he arrives at a small frontier town, he promptly picks a fight with the obnoxious, drunk son (Paul Dano) of a rich local rancher Woodrow Dolarhyde (Ford). The town loves this stranger for smacking down the bully, but then the sheriff (Keith Carradine) notices that he has a wanted poster with the stranger’s face on it.
After arresting the stranger, whose name is actually Jake Lonergan, alien planes attack the town and kidnap a bunch of people, including the younger Dolarhyde, lassoing them with cables and pulling them into the night sky.
Jake’s bracelet comes alive, becoming a powerful laser beam-like weapon, and he knocks one of the planes out of the sky. Dolarhyde, the sheriff and Lonergan form a posse of sorts with some townspeople, including the beautiful and mysterious Ella (Olivia Wilde) and Dolarhyde’s Native American right-hand Nat (Adam Beach).
During the posse’s travels, they encounter Jake’s old criminal gang and some Apache warriors. Neither group is remotely friendly, but both end up joining with the posse in the attempt to rescue the people that the aliens have kidnapped. The joining of the heroes with the traditional villains of Westerns against the savage alien threat is an interesting attempt at diffusing the moral tensions of the period, but it’s played for weak laughs.
The delicious irony of the white man and the red man joining together to attack a ruthless colonizing force that wants to rape the land isn’t even acknowledged. Instead, the film just follows a simple and utterly unsurprising plot, with clichés abounding in both the dialogue and the action.
The fraught, complex and only briefly dramatized relationship between Nat and Dolarhyde is the only indication that at some point, the script was deeper than the title of the film.
Cowboys & Aliens
Directed by Jon Favreau
Written by Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman, Damon Lindelof, Mark Fergus and Hawk Ostby
Starring Daniel Craig, Harrison Ford and Olivia Wilde
At your local multiplex
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