The first time I read a synopsis for “Cowboys & Aliens” several months ago, I’m pretty sure there was a giggle. With a concept so goofy (a Western with aliens attacking the cowboys and Indians), it seemed more like an idea a drunken buddy might come up with in a bar at 2 a.m. rather than a real movie. Yet, the names associated with the project were tough to snicker at: Jon Favreau (“Iron Man”) directing; James Bond (Daniel Craig) and Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) starring; Steven Spielberg, Ron Howard, and Brian Grazer producing.
It certainly piqued my curiosity.
Then came the trailers. Sure enough, it looked like a Western. With aliens. Craig and his ridiculously blue eyes were doing their thing. Ford was growling his lines as per usual. The effects looked appropriate for the names involved behind the camera. Could be good, right?
I mean, right? Still, the concept is, well, the title: Cowboys & Aliens. Can that really work?
Someone else said it to me first, so I can’t take credit, but I have repeated the line numerous times as the release date approached: “It will either be totally rad, or one of the worst movies of all time.” (I’m a fan of the word “rad.” We should bring it back. Just saying.)
My mentality was just that as I got comfy over the weekend in the theater: ready to let Favreau wow me again (the first 4-star review I ever gave was to “Iron Man”) or force me to bring up the fact he also directed “Zathura”, which was just a sucky “Jumanji.” Truth be told, there were stretches of “Cowboys & Aliens” where I was totally decided on putting it up on a pedestal with “Iron Man.” There were also stretches where I was busy mentally checking off ways I could draw unflattering comparisons to “Zathura.”
Somehow, “Cowboys & Aliens” surprised me. It wasn’t rad. It wasn’t awful. It was somewhere in between.
I kind of wish it could have been one or the other, though.
Favreau gets us out of the gate in the right way. A simple panning shot of the desert (it’s a Western!). All is quiet. Just as you’re starting to enjoy the serenity, Craig bolts upright into the frame, waking up with a start (it was also a rare moment where my fiancée jumped and I did not). It’s a Western. Here’s a cowboy. But what’s on his wrist?
Craig’s wondering, too. After all, in the days of cowboys and Indians, sleek, heavy duty, stainless steel contraptions on one’s wrists are a rarity. Before he has much of a chance to investigate, bandits come upon him and inform him they will be marching him into the nearest town (Absolution) to collect a reward on him if there is one. Craig then shows off how much faster he is with his combat moves than the stupid bandits; they all die and Craig gets a new wardrobe. Off to Absolution he goes, having gained a horse and a dog to go along with the new wardrobe.
So far, we’re on “Iron Man” level. Craig’s cowboy gets to the town, where nothing much is going on apart from a jerk (Paul Dano) shooting up buildings because his daddy (Ford) pretty much runs the joint. Craig might be suffering from memory loss, but we learn he’s an outlaw named Jake and so does the Sherriff. Things go downhill quickly for Jake and he winds up in a transport headed for another town where he’s likely to be hanged.
Enter the aliens!
Spaceships blow up a lot of the town as they swoop by, plucking up people and abducting them as any good alien should. When the smoke clears, we have our obligatory awkward team up of the outlaw, Jake, and Indiana Jones – er, Colonel Dolarhyde (Ford).
Still on “Iron Man” level. Cowboys and aliens can actually work as a concept!
Until we see the aliens. They’re not the worst I’ve seen (“Skyline” and “Monsters” both come to mind), but they aren’t all that effective, either. They’re slimy, ugly, violent, sure. I didn’t have much of a reaction to them, though, and that started my mind back toward “Zathura” territory. Once we learn the aliens are here mining all the gold they can find, once we see the inside of their ship where they’re doing said mining, I was thinking more and more of “Zathura.”
The plot moves forward quickly enough. The action is entertaining enough. Craig’s eyes are more than blue enough. There’s even a brief tear-jerker moment when Dolarhyde’s faithful assistant dies in his arms.
I don’t know what the fix would have been, although I suspect a little more Western and a little less alien might have done the trick. “Cowboys & Aliens” isn’t totally rad; it isn’t horribly bad.
That (being somewhere in the middle), I predict, will wind up making the movie rather forgettable. Of course, my predictions have already proven wrong on this flick.