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.

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.

Now I have nothing against Orci and Kurtzman: Their movies are not ill-tempered (like the most recent Transformers movie, with which they were not involved), and they generally share a certain jaunty exuberance. Yet the films’ most notable commonality is the way they elevate incoherence to something approaching philosophy. M:i:III centered on a global hazard so haphazard (maybe the “anti-God?”; no, probably not) that we never even learned what it was; Transformers 2 had John Turturro begging for clarity from within the movie itself; and Star Trek, though quite enjoyable otherwise, sent its plot spinning through a black hole.

On some level, it’s hard not to imagine that this is all some elaborate inside joke or dada exercise on the part of Orci and Kurtzman. How better to explain the glaring non- and counter-sequiturs of Cowboys & Aliens? Early in their journey, the gang comes across a massive paddle-wheeler dumped upside-down in the Southwestern desert, “500 miles away” from any river big enough for it to have traveled. One might guess that at some subsequent point in the film we’d be offered an explanation for what the aliens did to the boat and why, or some hint that the aliens had even been 500 miles away. But no, their incursion seems aggressively local, and the paddle-boat remains a set design in search of a rationale. As for the aliens themselves, why are we told that they huddle deep in their caves because they can’t see well during daylight—only to have them pop out to fight unhindered while the sun is high? Or take a scene in which Jake encounters his former band of banditos, now under the command of a mutinous lieutenant. After settling the mutiny, does Jake reassume command of this useful regiment of cannon-fodder? No, he flees them, incomprehensibly—only to return and reassume command later. Theatergoers at the screening I attended were particularly perplexed at the movie’s refusal to explain why the aliens, who have come to Earth to plunder our gold, want the gold in the first place. And don’t get me started on Wilde’s character, eventually revealed to be a plot device so lame that it almost left me nostalgic for the time-travel trap doors of Star Trek.

A further casualty of the script’s random swerves and loose ends is the entire concept of character. With M:i:III and Star Trek and their second Transformers outing, Orci and Kurtzman had the advantage of pre-established protagonists: We all knew who Kirk and Spock and Ethan Hunt and Sam Witwicky were supposed to be. Without such personality backstops, the cast of Cowboys & Aliens wander aimlessly back-and-forth across moral and characterological spectrums. Ford’s Dolarhyde is particularly schizophrenic, alternating on an almost scene-by-scene basis between apparent Bad Guy and presumed Good Guy. (Dano’s metamorphosis is no less awkward, though because he is absent for the middle portion of the film, somewhat less striking.) Now, it is true that the preacher has a couple of lines about “seeing good men do bad things and bad men do good things,” and the town is, after all, named Absolution. But this redemptive theme is so underdeveloped that it comes across primarily as excuse-making. Why not just name the town Narrative Incoherence and be done with it?

There is, however, reason for hope. Orci and Kurtzman have written (and the latter directed) a small film called Welcome to People, scheduled for release next year. The movie is a drama about a man delivering an inheritance from his deceased father to a sister he has never met. It contains, as best I can tell, no robots or aliens or spies or cowboys. Let us all hope that it is a good film, and a great success—one that offers Orci, Kurtzman, and the moviegoing public an escape from the storytelling black hole into which we all seem to have fallen.