Once in a while, even the most tried and true narrative formula needs repackaging for retail-friendliness. Or so it must seem at least to those bottom-line minders who cut checks to Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford.
So let’s do this: a thing and another thing…but not the other thing you expect! And the thing is cool, and the other thing is differently cool, so as to convey a vibe of maybe just being plum crazy enough to work. This being a delicate art, it’ll involve some trial and error. Like so.
Spaghetti and meatballs: Classic.
Spaghetti and glass shards: No thank you!
Spaghetti and Gummi Bears: Keep talking….
And before we know it we’re in the Old West, but with invading extraterrestrials. “Cowboys & Aliens” may sound conceptually obvious, but in fact it is obvious in every other way, too. For instance, Craig and Ford don’t play the aliens. And if this is not exactly what you expect from director Jon Favreau and an original movie-ready property by comic book industrialist Scott Mitchell Rosenberg, it must be because you’re not sure who those guys are anyway. No matter.
The stars look great, but unfortunately that’s no matter either. If anything could redeem this, it would be the sense of a kid gathering all his random toys together, non sequiturs be damned, into one sincerely urgent, internally logical superstory. What “Cowboys & Aliens” lacks, aside from the better execution we’ve already seen more than once in Pixar’s “Toy Story” franchise (not to mention Ford’s own frolic with Gene Wilder in “The Frisco Kid” some 30-odd years ago), is an attitude of abandon.
All the cheerfully winking genre enthusiasm Favreau brought to such fun romps as “Elf” and the first “Iron Man” is not readily apparent here. “Cowboys & Aliens” feels like a perfunctory, mercantile exercise — sagging misshapenly under the weight of its way too many producer and writer credits, which include some big shots whose demands may well have simply worn Favreau down.
Neither homage nor satire, quite, it’s more like a brainstormed shorthand checklist of plot points and payoffs. The characters got sketched in at some juncture, and since then everyone seems to have just decided to leave them sketchy, letting stereotype pose as archetype. There’s the loner hero (Craig) with no past, and no fear. The crusty rival-cum-ally (Ford) with a heart of gold. The irksome whelp (Paul Dano) on whom the hero puts a beating, to comic effect. There’s the hero surrounded: by thugs, by Apache, by aliens, and the surprise cavalry-arrival rescue(s) just when all seems lost. There’s the creature all up in your business, with body parts within its body parts. The uncertain but timely weapons proficiency. The boy and his dog. The manly speech. The humbling. The vision quest. The warrior honor bullshit. The woman (Abigail Spencer) who gets to make out with Daniel Craig. The other woman (Olivia Wilde) who gets to make out with Daniel Craig. There’s the blah blah and uh huh and whatever.
Some scenes begin promisingly but most just tend to stall out. We’re invited to do the dramatic (or occasionally comedic) legwork ourselves, but not at all required to, so it’s doubly insulting. If you’re sick of cowboy cliches, Favreau seems to be saying, just wait for the space-invader cliches. If you’re sick of those, it’ll be over soon.
Sam Rockwell brings some less contrived humanity to his tagalong supporting part as a docile shopkeeper, and the movie seems happy to have him, so that’s nice. But of course it’s a movie whose principal achievement probably is the stoic array of straight faces it has managed to gather under its own silly circumstances. Just about everyone who appears here does seem wholly convinced that he or she populates and Old West being invaded by extraterrestrials. There is some squinting, what with the scorching southwestern sun and the interstellar trespassers’ probing beams, but winking at the audience? Next to none.
That leaves us and the bottom-line minders standing glumly in a pile of packaging. “Cowboys & Aliens” really is just a hooky premise in search of a paycheck. Don’t let it abduct yours.