Cowboys + Aliens = Mess

One bad film and two screenwriters' war against coherence

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Where to begin with Cowboys & Aliens? As advertised, the movie concerns cowboys, aliens, and the inevitable disputes that arise between the two. If you find this conceit irretrievably silly, the film is unlikely to persuade you otherwise.

It opens with Jake Lonergan (Daniel Craig) regaining consciousness amid the barren scrub of 1873 Arizona with a nasty wound in his side, a futuristic bracelet locked on his forearm, and no memory of how he got either. As he tries to break the high-tech accessory off with a rock, he’s approached by three horsemen whose hearts are not filled with charity. After delivering a stern lesson in the virtues of Samaritanism, Jake makes his way to the nearby town of Absolution.

There he meets, in short order, a kindly priest (Clancy Brown), an ineffectual saloon-keep (Sam Rockwell), a taciturn sheriff (Keith Carradine), his timid grandson (Noah Ringer), a domineering cattleman named Colonel Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford), his violent, entitled son (Paul Dano), and various other stock characters from the Western canon. There is also a beautiful woman (Olivia Wilde), whose intended mysteriousness is easily mistaken for bland opacity. When the townsfolk discover that the amnesiac Jake is in fact an infamous outlaw, he’s stashed in a coach to be delivered to the federal marshals.

The town is called Absolution, but the redemptive theme is so underdeveloped that it comes across as excuse-making. Why not just name the town Narrative Incoherence?

Then the aliens show up, and all token stabs at background and motivation are quickly abandoned. When first spotted, the small extraterrestrial ships look like a fire on the horizon. But they quickly whiz into town, snatching up a number of residents like calves at a rodeo and spiriting them away. During the otherwise one-sided encounter, Jake discovers that his bracelet is in fact a space-age blaster, and he shoots one of the alien fighters from the sky. No one exhibits much interest in examining the downed pod, however, least of all the resolutely incurious script.

The next morning, the aforementioned characters—minus the sheriff and Dolarhyde’s son, who were among those taken—saddle up to follow the aliens and rescue their loved ’uns. On their journey, they will be assaulted by aliens, by highwaymen, by Indians, and by draining bouts of narrative inertia. When they finally reach the alien mothership, there is a prolonged battle—cowboy-hatted actors on one side, CGI creepies on the other—that seems like a laboratory-pure experiment to prove the essential ridiculousness of the movie’s premise.

There are a handful of things to like along the way, beginning, perhaps unsurprisingly, with Craig. Though his voice never quite achieves the right timbre—he appears to swallowing a little hard on his accent—his creased visage and lean physique (which, yes, we are given the chance to inspect closely) neatly summon the mythic Western ethos. If Sergio Leone were still with us, the things he could have done with that face! A minute-long closeup of Craig’s pale-blue squint, while a Morricone score quavered, would be more evocative than the entirety of Cowboys & Aliens.

There are other hints of promise in the early, pre-alien going, as the movie unrolls the familiar tropes of the genre: the mysterious loner; the gun-happy loudmouth; the unhurried lawman; the confrontations on dusty streets and in darkened bars. Alas, the film soon loses its way.

Ford’s performance is disappointingly overcooked: Instead of revealing a quiet core of malice—it should, after all, be less work to be a villain than a hero—he snarls and growls his way through the role. At the other end of the spectrum, Rockwell is utterly wasted as the mild-mannered barkeep, his loopy charisma kept firmly under wraps. And while I’d like to suggest that the less said about Wilde the better, I fear more will need to be said in a moment. The direction, meanwhile, by Jon Favreau, is slack and unfocused, less Iron Man than Iron Man 2.

But let’s move on to the men whom Forbes described, in a May article, as the “real stars” of the film, screenwriters Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman. (The two longtime friends and collaborators are among at least 12 writers, not including the author of the graphic novel, who worked on the film at various points; but it was they, with Damon Lindelof, who wrote the final draft.) As Forbes noted, movies written by Orci and Kurtzman—including the first two Transformers films, the third Mission: Impossible, and Star Trek—have made $3 billion at the box office over the past six years. But while this figure is certainly notable, it is perhaps less notable than method underlying this success, which consists, essentially, of a phenomenally successful two-man war against narrative clarity and continuity.

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Christopher Orr is a senior editor and the principal film critic at The Atlantic. He has written on movies for The New Republic, LA Weekly, Salon, and The New York Sun, and has worked as an editor for numerous publications.

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