As with seemingly every other tentpole release to hit the multiplex this summer the action thriller Cowboys & Aliens is based on a comic book – albeit a lesser-known one. It’s directed by Jon Favreau whose previous comic-book adaptations Iron Man and Iron Man 2 proved how much better those films can be when they’re grounded in character. Unfortunately his latest effort is grounded not in character but a hook an alt-history scenario best expressed in the language of the average twelve-year-old: “Like wouldn’t it be awesome if like a bunch of 1870s cowboys had to fight a bunch of crazy aliens with exoskeletons and spaceships and super-advanced weapons?”
Like perhaps. The hook was compelling enough to get someone to pony up a reported $160 million to find out and the result is a film in which the western and science-fiction genres don’t so much blend as violently collide. After the wreckage is cleared both emerge worse for wear.
Daniel Craig stars as Jake Lonergan a stranger who awakens in the New Mexico Territory with a case of amnesia a wound in his side and a strange contraption strapped to his wrist. After dispatching a trio of bandits with Bourne-like efficiency he rides to the nearby town of Absolution where he stumbles on what appears to be an elaborate Western Iconography exhibit presented by the local historical preservation society. There’s the well-meaning town Sheriff Taggart (Keith Carradine) struggling to enforce order amidst lawlessness; the greedy rancher Colonel Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford) who really runs things; his debaucherous cowardly son Percy (Paul Dano); the timid saloonkeeper Doc (Sam Rockwell) who’s going to stand up for himself one of these days; the humble preacher Meacham (Clancy Brown) dispensing homespun spiritual advice; et al.
Jake of course has his own part to play – the fugitive train-robber – as we discover when his face shows up on a wanted poster and a sneering Dolarhyde fingers him for the theft of his gold. The only character who doesn’t quite conform to type is Ella (Olivia Wilde) who as neither a prostitute nor some man’s wife – the traditional female occupations in westerns – immediately arouses suspicion.
Jake is arrested and ordered to stand trial in Federal court but before he can be shipped off a squadron of alien planes appears in the sky besieging Absolution and making off with several of its terrified citizenry. In the course of the melee Jake’s wrist contraption wherever it came from reveals itself to be quite useful in defense against the alien invaders. Thrown by circumstances into an uneasy alliance with Dolarhyde he helps organize a posse to counter the otherworldly threat – and bring back the abductees if possible.
Cowboys & Aliens has many of the ingredients of a solid summer blockbuster but none in sufficient amounts to rate in a summer season crowded with bigger-budget (and better-crafted) spectacle. For a film with five credited screenwriters Cowboys & Aliens’ script is sorely lacking for verve or imagination. And what happened to the Favreau of Iron Man? The playful cheekiness that made those films so much fun is all but absent in this film which takes itself much more seriously than any film called Cowboys & Aliens has a right to. Dude you’ve got men on horses with six-shooters battling laser-powered alien crab people. Lighten up.
Craig certainly looks the part of the western anti-hero – his only rival in the area of rugged handsomeness is Viggo Mortensen – but his character is reduced to little more than an angry glare. And Wilde the poor girl is burdened with loads of clunky exposition. The two show promising glimpses of a romantic spark but their relationship remains woefully underdeveloped. Faring far better is Ford who gets not only the bulk of the film’s choicest lines but also its only touching subplot in which his character’s adopted Indian son played by Adam Beach quietly coaxes the humanity out of the grizzled old man.
The film opens as teenagers Katie (Amber Tamblyn) and Becca (Rachael Bella) are having a sleepover and spooking each other with ghost stories. Trouble is the urban legend Becca retells is all too true as Katie is just about to find out in the most grisly of ways. The story centers on a mysterious videotape that should you be so unfortunate as to view it will kill you in seven days (you know this because someone calls right after you watch it to alert you that you're gonna kick). Katie and her friends watched it and sure enough they're all dead a week later--sparking Katie's aunt an investigative journalist named Rachel (Naomi Watts) to uncover what happened and why. When the trail leads her to the sinister tape she watches it receives the foreboding phone call and consequently sets off on a race against time to somehow save her life by finding out the meaning of what she's seen. She enlists the help of Noah (Martin Henderson) the father of her rather strange and solitary young son Aidan (David Dorfman)--who like all kids in horror movies these days is seeing frightening visions too--and over the course of seven days the two find themselves embroiled in a mystery that involves the tape a twisted family and dying horses.
The acting by all involved is generally good. Naomi Watts who hit the radar with David Lynch's Mulholland Drive last year ably carries the film although there are times in close-up when she looks too self-aware with an almost smug expression as though she's about to smile when the situation isn't the least bit funny. Maybe it's because she knows her Rachel does some pretty mind-blowingly foolish things the most noteworthy among them leaving the deadly video out where her curious son (who annoyingly invokes Haley Joel Osment and looks absolutely nothing like either of the folks playing his parents) can pop it in the ol' VCR. Though Watts is a basically likeable fresh face any number of up-and-coming actresses could have done this role--as well or better.
It's been awhile since jaded horror fans have had something to get excited about. Gore Verbinski justifies his career after the miserable The Mexican with this taut thriller which opens with the teen girls in a truly terrifying sequence reminiscent of Scream. Verbinski is keenly aware of the value of keeping things just out of sight and not resorting to cheap horror movie shlock so there are genuine chills to be had (animal lovers will want to cover their eyes during one particularly horrifying scene). Although the moments that'll really make you jump out of your skin are few and far between the secret behind the videotape is compelling as is the imagery. Without overdoing it The Ring displays some fantastic cinematography particularly with the Buñuel-esque videotape (you could have heard a pin drop as engrossed as the audience was at this review screening) and the shots of gloomy mist-enshrouded Washington State are disquietingly atmospheric. However the last third of the movie is somewhat disappointing and contains several utterly ridiculous scenes--particularly one at the ending (which actually has a nice twist).