Cowboys & Aliens - movie review
Who's saying what
At the time, critics and pundits put it down to the Favreau touch, the certain je ne sais quoi that infused even his serious projects, like this, with humour; that people were laughing because it was funny.
Having seen the film, I think the assumption made by outsiders was too generous: those test screening audiences were laughing because it's bad.
It didn't have to be like this: it has a great cast and a fun premise. I mean, cowboys and aliens, man! Where did it go wrong? Let's count the ways.
When a film's writing credits are littered with ampersands and ands (in WGA terms, teams of writers are joined by &, while successive writers - or indeed teams - are separated by 'and'), that is a fairly reliable indicator that the script's been through the wringer one or twenty times.
Here, Favreau works from a script by - deep breath - Roberto Orci & Alex Kurtzman & Damon Lindelof and Mark Fergus & Hawk Ostby, from a screen story by Mark Fergus & Hawk Ostby and Steve Oedekirk, from the comic book by Scott Mitchell Rosenberg.
So that's six writers (seven if you count the source material), and between the lot of them they apparently couldn't come up with dialogue better than to have a pretty girl ask a man who can't remember anything, "You don't remember anything?"
Said man is Jake Lonergan (Daniel Craig), at least, he figures out he's Jake Lonergan when he steals a horse and rides into Absolution to refresh his memory. (He's woken up in a field, a mysterious bracelet clapped on his wrist, with no memory of how he got there or who put that thing on his wrist.)
In town, he dukes it out with Percy (Paul Dano), the local colonel's tearaway son, before ending up in a saloon run by Doc (Sam Rockwell), the kind of saloon where the music stops if someone of import walks in, which is what happens when the Sherrif (Keith Carradine) arrives to inform Lonergan that he is, in fact, a wanted man. Despite his best efforts to shoot everyone in the bar, Lonergan is donked on the head by the equally mysterious Ella (Olivia Wilde), and winding up in jail alongside Percy.
The two are loaded into a jail carriage to be shipped off to the Federal Marshals when Percy's dad, Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford) rides into town to get his son out of the clink. Before too long, Jake's bracelet starts beeping, and suddenly alien spaceships are shooting the shit out of 1873. Lonergan manages to shoot one down with his wrist doohickey, and soon enough their rag-tag party is tracking a wounded alien across Arizona.
Unfortunately, it isn't. No amount of gee-whiz techno-wizardry or nifty pop-cultural juxtapositions can save Cowboys & Indians from two terrible truths: it has a dud script, and a dud director.
This is the sort of film where dialogue exists only in sentence fragments, signposts that hang in the air like "I don't want any trouble" and "I need to find out where you came from", as well as dunderhead clangers like (when it's raining) "The tracks are washing away" and (as Ella reaches towards Jake's clearly suppurating wound) "Does it hurt?"
At this point in his career, I'm no longer convinced that Jon Favreau is a director of any real talent (other than for box office gains). His actors here seem either lost (Rockwell, Wilde, Craig), irritated (Ford) or borderline incompetent (as Emmett, the bug-eyed, teary kid whose gramps is snatched by a spaceship, Noah Ringer gives one of the worst performances by a child actor in recent memory).
Favreau would clearly like the film to pay homage to the work of its executive producer, Steven Spielberg, but he lacks Spielberg's deft touch - and also the knowledge that character and story is the key to even the grandest sci-fi epic. We don't care about any of these people, because we don't know them.
The film is visually unimaginative, too. Cinematographer Matthew Libatique, who has created some wonderful imagery in his collaborations with Darren Aronofsky, somehow manages to make the Wild West look mundane; Arizona's sweeping vistas are reduced to mid-shots of generic shrubbery and grassed plains.
Add to that a score by Harry Gregson-Williams that continually threatens to turn into either Aerosmith's Back In The Saddle or Bon Jovi's Dead Or Alive, and you have an A-grade stinker - and one you might find yourself wishing could be expunged from your memory by a visiting alien.
- Two stars
Cowboys & Aliens opens in cinemas on Thursday, August 18.
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