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.
If a major motion picture studio gave you $50 million to make the movie of your choice what would it be like? If you’re producers Tim Bevan and Eric Fellner and writers Simon Pegg and Nick Frost it’d be a loving lampoon of geek culture and an homage to the films of the Spielberg/Lucas revolution but nostalgia is both an advantage and disadvantage in director Greg Mottola’s Paul.
Pegg and Frost star as a pair of nerds from across the pond who fulfill lifelong dreams when they fly to San Diego for the annual Mecca of nerdom Comic-Con. The doofy duo extend their trip to tour America’s extraterrestrial hot spots including Area 51 where they pick up an unexpected alien hitchhiker on the run from the proverbial men in black. Across the country they go getting into trouble picking up more passengers and building bromantic bonds as the little green man Paul inches closer to his escape from planet Earth and the shadowy government official who has been exploiting his knowledge of the universe since he crash landed in Wyoming over 60 years ago.
Fan-favorite filmmakers since 2004’s Shaun of the Dead Pegg and Frost have been making geek chic for years now and continue to create identifiable roles for themselves while finding humorous ways to write their like-minded friends into their movies. Their collection of wacky characters is charming if incredibly derivative but for better or worse they are the heart and soul of the film. Jason Bateman Kristen Wiig Bill Hader and Jo Lo Truglio turn in fun performances but I expected a bit more from the Jane Lynch David Koechner and Sigourney Weaver cameos. Still Seth Rogen’s vocal performance as Paul adds significant layers to an already adorable alien and enlivens the adequately rendered CG character.
The comedy is surprisingly sweet and doesn’t bite like Mottola’s Superbad though there are enough religious jabs and signs of anti-establishment fervor to call it mildly subversive. Lack of laughs isn’t the issue here; lack of originality is. Mottola is too dependent on pop-culture references and inside jokes pertaining to E.T. Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind so much so that the film ultimately becomes a parody of itself as its storyline mirrors that of Steven Spielberg’s massive 1982 blockbuster (in this world the movie mogul actually consults the incarcerated alien for inspiration for his beloved family film). While these nods are all amusing they’re not enough to carry the film and Mottola/Frost/Pegg offer little else. At its worst Paul will give you a reason to revisit those classic sci-fi staples and remember the good old days. At best it provides a few mindless chuckles and gives you good reason to give the geek next to you a great big hug.