Cowboys & Aliens: Two Great Genres, One Mediocre Movie

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Timothy White / Universal Studios and DreamWorks II

Hollywood sharpies spend endless hours at pitch meetings dreaming up hybrids of famous movies, and sometimes they hit pay dirt. “It’s like Jaws, but on a spaceship”: Alien. Then the hybrid blossoms into its own format until it devolves and devours its own with Alien vs. Predator and finally collapses, exhausted into the heap of Mega Shark vs. Crocosaurus. That’s what happens when moviemakers take Spengler’s theory of the rise and decline of nations and use it as a business model.

The title Cowboys & Aliens — suggesting a merger of the cowboys-and-Indians Western genre with science fiction — triggered the salivary glands of some very important film people. As packed as the cast list is with stars (Daniel Craig, Harrison Ford) and vaunted character actors (Sam Rockwell, Keith Carradine, Paul Dano), it’s fair to say there’s more movie muscle behind the camera. Steven Spielberg, Ron Howard and Brian Grazer are among the producers. The director, Jon Favreau, did Iron Man and Elf. The quintet of writers who receive script credit include guys who had worked on Star Trek, The Proposal, Lost, Alias and the Transformers and Mission: Impossible series. Now all they had to do was dream up a movie that lived up to its title.

The film takes its name from a recent graphic novel, “created” by Scott Mitchell Rosenberg, that imagines an alien race has landed in Arizona in 1873 to mine the gold that is even more precious on their planet than on ours. The story intercuts scenes in the alien camp with those involving a ragtag team of earthlings — hard-bitten cowboys, a tribe of Native Americans and a newly-arrived wagon train of settlers — and pits ray guns against rifles and bows and arrows. Beneath the comic-book sound effects of the weaponry (“SWABAMM!” “TWONG!” “KRAKABOOOOM!”), the book presses the metaphor of Manifest Destiny, with the aliens plundering the West as the white men did the Indians’ home land. Like many earlier Westerns, the Cowboys & Aliens novel is a political morality play on horseback.

What’s clear is that the filmmakers loved the title, hated the book. Prudently deciding that the white folks in the audience wouldn’t enjoy the movie so much if they kept being reminded that their ancestors were guilty of genocide, the writers cobbled a new story with more familiar contours. Now the hero is a nameless bravado (Craig) wandering into the frontier town of Absolution, and helping the locals and some nearby Indians fight off the invaders from another planet. The outpost is stocked with attractive stereotypes: the gruff sheriff (Carradine), the meek saloonkeeper (Rockwell) and his loving Latina wife (Ana de la Reguera), the imperious cattle baron Dolarhyde (Ford), his wastrel son (Dano) and a smart Indian (Adam Beach) he’s adopted. Also a preacher (Chris Browning), a pretty girl (Olivia Wilde) and a kid (Noah Ringer) — the whole sagebrush ensemble from Gene Autry or John Ford pictures, reunited for a retro movie with a nine-figure budget.

At first the man with no name and his mysterious alien bracelet suggest a Western remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still: what if the Clint-Eastwoodian stranger who upends a Western town were an extraterrestrial? But it’s soon revealed that he is the all-too-human renegade Jake Lonergan, wanted for many a nefarious crime and, more important, ripe for redemption. So are the townspeople, who, like rival members of a platoon, band together to fight the otherworldly intruders. The Absolutionists also need to free their loved ones who’ve been abducted by the aliens, both for purposes of research and as expression of an intergalactic Bad Neighbor policy.

In its first half, when it’s content to plunder favorite Western tropes, the movie provides some vagrant pleasures. The supporting actors savor each element of their characters as if it were the tastiest tobacco chaw. (Kudos, in passing, to Rockwell, Browning, Beach and Ringer.) Lonergan’s entry into the Absolution saloon plays like a live-action reprise of a similar scene in Rango, with Johnny Depp voicing a cowboy chameleon; but that just proves the sturdiness of the genre, and the ability of modern filmmakers to honor and tweak Western conventions. And when tough-guy Craig confronts mean-man Ford, it’s like the world champion glare-off of steely blue eyes.

In Hollywood’s ancient prime, maybe a third of all movies were Westerns. But those days are as dead as the horse-mounted cavalry; in the past 30 years, the genre has been resuscitated only when some powerful director wanted to make a movie like the ones he grew up loving. So Cowboys & Aliens has got to get to the aliens pretty damn quick. Even here, Favreau and his crew sprinkle a few memorable moments: the aliens’ low-flying scout planes, looking like 10-winged titanium dragonflies and lassoing the townspeople for abduction; a desert vision of an upside-down steamship, which momentarily summons the ghost of Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo; and the recurring image of Craig retrieving his cowboy hat, whether he’s fighting off human varmints or escaping from the aliens’ stronghold. A man ain’t a man without his Stetson.

Gradually, though, the movie sinks into ordinariness, serving up too many Spielbergian reaction shots of each cast member gawking or gulping at an alien encounter, and too many moral lessons that must be learned or taught. Cowboys & Aliens is the kind of movie where anything that happens in Act One (the kid is given a knife, the saloonkeeper doesn’t know how to shoot) will predictably pay off in Act Three. And why is the ancient wisdom of Indian shamans always taken at face value? Modern movies usually mock a Christian’s belief in miracles; yet the summoning of spirits by aboriginal Americans, here as in other Westerns, is shown as a certain conduit to another, higher world.

These clichés test the attention span of viewers and force them into the fallback job of seeing how the actors are doing. Wilde, as an ethereal cowgirl with a few mysteries of her own, has not a trace of 19th-century dust on her slim frame, but her runway beauty seizes the screen. Craig, in the interval between his last James Bond movie and his starring role in David Fincher’s remake of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, occupies the Lonergan character forcefully, though his appeal still stops just this side of star quality. And Ford, as he’s done ever since the early Star Wars movies, overindulges in scowling and growling. He should know by now that his weathered face is its own cranky editorial comment.

We wish that the movie had lived up to our expectations and its makers’ ambitions. But in films as in foods, some hybrids make sense and others don’t. Cowboys & Aliens could have been the tangelo of genre-blenders. Instead, it’s more like the Jimmy Dean Chocolate Chip Pancake & Sausage on a Stick.