From the Horrible Bosses, Bad Teacher, and Snakes on a Plane school of title-giving, we now have Cowboys & Aliens, which is about, well . . .yeah. I must say, though, two bold choices by director Jon Favreau: Not to call it Cowboys vs. Aliens (so as not to confuse it with Alien vs. Predator?) and, of course, the use of that jaunty little ampersand. Any hack can use the word “and” but it takes a real artist to go for the ampersand.
Okay, I mock unfairly—a bit. Cowboys & Aliens is actually kind of fun. It’s just about as literal-minded a film as you can get. Favreau doesn’t choose to reinvent or reimagine either cowboy films or alien films. Instead, he chooses to take the most obvious tropes from both genres and mash them together. It’s a fanboy stoner debate come to life: What if we took really awesome cowboys and really awesome aliens and had them, you know, fight? Who would win? Would the Indians side with the cowboys or the aliens? Would it, empirically-speaking, be the greatest film ever?
Daniel Craig, with his creviced, lived-in, ugly-handsome face is brilliantly cast as Jake Lonergan, a lone gunslinger who wakes up in the middle of the Arizona desert in 1873 with a deep wound in his gut, a strange metal contraption on his wrist, and no recollection whatsoever of who he is. (I shudder to think what Cowboys & Aliens would’ve been like without the grounding presence of Craig. Favreau should send him a fruit basket.)
Jakes wanders into the nearest town, is patched up by a kindly priest (Clancy Brown), and soon discovers that he’s wanted for gold theft and murder. And to make matters worse, he stole from the wrong man—a powerful and intimidating land baron named Woodrow Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford, doing the gruff thing again) with a spoiled brat son named Percy (Paul Dano), who’s fond of terrorizing the locals by firing off his gun in town square.
Both Percy and Jake are about to be taken to the hoosegow (Percy accidentally shot a deputy during one of his adventures in gunplay) when the aliens come back to finish what they started with Jake. They snatch up a bunch of townsfolk into their spaceship—including Percy, the town sheriff (Keith Carradine), and the beloved wife of the local tavern owner, Doc (Sam Rockwell). Now Jake and Woodrow have to join forces to fight off the flying “demons.”
There’s a beautiful woman, too (Olivia Wilde)—a mysterious stranger who seems hung-up on Jake and looks like she just stepped off a photo shoot for the Sundance catalog. She claims that the demons took her kinfolk, too—but is there more to her than meets the eye?
Favreau is a good pop filmmaker, with sharp commercial instincts and a deft hand with an action sequence. But again and again, he makes the obvious choices here. When we do see the aliens, they look a lot like, well, the aliens from Predator. When we do meet the Native-Americans, they do the peaceful warrior shtick we’ve seen in every deconstructed Western since Dances With Wolves. Indeed, there’s not a halfway decent Western or alien film that Favreau doesn’t crib from.
Notably, there are six screenwriters credited with creating Cowboys & Aliens—apparently, it takes that many writers to make something so thoroughly generic.