SPOILERS may be revealed in the following paragraphs. READ AT YOUR OWN RISK!
You might recall that Director Jon Favreau [Iron Man, Iron Man 2] brought along a posse of big-name actors to his 2010 Comic-Con Hall H panel, as well as several minutes of footage from his then in-the-works action flick Cowboys & Aliens. (This was the panel preceded by the now infamous assault-by-pen, an incident whose publicity in the mainstream media outstripped even Harrison Ford’s surprise arrival onstage in handcuffs.)
In 2011 Favreau arranged to hold the world premiere of the now finished film in San Diego, saying that he wanted to unveil it at Comic-Con as a thank-you to con-goers for their support of the films he had introduced there in previous years. Several hundred lucky fans won tickets to the star-studded event, walked the red carpet at the San Diego Civic Theatre and participated in the post-premiere partying. I’m sure that had I been among the chosen few at the premiere I would have found the whole experience pretty exciting too, and would have thoroughly enjoyed seeing the film gift-wrapped in this magical chance-of-a-lifetime atmosphere.
Instead, I went to see Cowboys & Aliens at my local cineplex on a rainy Tuesday afternoon, sans Daniel Craig and with fewer expectations. A mashup of the Western and Sci Fi genres and “inspired” by its eponymous graphic novel, C&A has not thus far garnered very good reviews from most critics, but I walked into the theater with my bag of popcorn and an open mind.
What really hit me at first was how flat the whole movie looks. Although filmed in one of the most beautiful parts of our country, the New Mexican desert location of Plaza Blanca, aka “The White Place,” familiar to art lovers from Georgia O’Keeffe’s paintings, and to filmgoers as a location for The Missing, 3:10 to Yuma, and City Slickers, Favreau has somehow managed to make the outstanding locale look positively back lot. Nearly every shot in C&A had a blown-out, flattened look (perhaps from shooting in digital instead of on film?), with the result that the majesty of the setting is completely lost.
Next, even before the introduction of the aliens and their space age technology, the film reverberates with an unfortunately modern vibe. Locations and cinematography positively scream “this is a set”, and never was I swept up in the belief that the story was taking place in the specific time period of the Old West. In fact, I always had a sense of the cameras and crew standing just out of range, which really lessened any shock value when the aliens did eventually show up later.
Also, Harrison Ford overacts in this. A LOT. Now this trait of his may not be news to most people, but I happen to like Ford’s acting in most of his other movies. Although he usually just plays himself, I have seen how a good director can rein in Ford’s scene-chewing tendencies and wring a really decent performance out of him. Not so here. Maybe Favreau was too in awe of his famous star or he just didn’t do enough takes, but Ford is awful, especially in the beginning. He almost seems to be in a different film at first (did he mistakenly think this was a parody?), and he doesn’t really hit his stride until the last 30 minutes. Oddly enough, that’s also when he has the least amount of dialogue, which I doubt is a coincidence.
I found myself fervently wishing that the passionate-looking Ana de la Reguera [as Maria, the saloon keeper’s wife] and lead actress Olivia Wilde [Ella] had switched roles. Although model-perfect, the vacuous-expressioned Wilde had absolutely NO chemistry with Craig. Their thankfully brief scenes together were squeamishly uncomfortable to watch. Her performance is so completely disposable that I felt no sorrow at either of her deaths in the film.
I will give props to co-star Daniel Craig for a solid job throughout. He inhabits his character of the lone gunman with the missing memory like a second skin, with the only drawback being that he is given far too little to say. Even with so few lines, he acts volumes with his eyes and facial muscles. He also does the action bits especially well, and the filming accentuates his obvious physical abilities, although I felt it was a little too obvious when the stunt guys took over. Again, this smacks of less-than-stellar directing and editing by Favreau.
The rest of the cast discharges their worn-out Western stereotypes with a certain charm, although they, too, are given far too little to work with. Sam Rockwell comes off best in fleshing out his role and making his saloon keeper character more interesting than I’m sure was called for in the script. As for the aliens, they weren’t even given faces until nearly an hour into the movie, and were never allowed to evolve much beyond the “Big Bad”. Too bad.
But the biggest mistake I saw was that in translating the graphic novel to live action it appears that the scriptwriters excised or trivialized almost all of its themes. By focusing on only one or two elements and relying far too heavily on tired stereotypes instead of good writing, the film lacks any real heart or depth. There’s no substance here, only show.
As to the idea of combining Old West and Science Fiction genres in the same film? I still think it’s an interesting and valuable premise to explore, it’s just too bad it wasn’t served particularly well in this film. Perhaps Favreau was out of his depth, I don’t know. Let’s hope the next attempt, and you know there will be one, ends up in a far better result.
ETA: There’s an rejected Drew Struzan poster for Cowboys & Aliens out on the interwebs which could stand as a perfect example of what is wrong with this film. In it the HUGE faces of Harrison Ford and Daniel Craig loom menacingly over a much smaller alien silhouette interposed between them. Google it and save yourself the price of a ticket, because it perfectly depicts where the emphasis is placed in this film.