"Cowboys and Aliens" ranked very high on my want-to-see list this year purely on the strength of its title. My explanation of my enthusiasm was simple (and repeated often, to my family's growing annoyance): "It's got cowboys. It's got aliens." The title seemed to promise an inspired blending of fantasy and utter goofiness: cowboys in conflict with extraterrestrials. If it could manage the tone of something like "Paul," it would be a fine time in the multiplex. And, with Jon Favreau directing, the right tone seemed quite possible.
Unfortunately, I did not get to the movie in a theater and so waited for the recent arrival of the Blu-ray, which is in stores on Dec. 6. The Blu-ray, in fact, includes a longer version than the one shown in theaters. Which, alas, did not prove to be a good thing.
What a mess. ...
Daniel Craig stars as a notorious outlaw who awakes one day with no memory and a huge bracelet on his wrist. Soon enough, he is in conflict with a surly rancher (Harrison Ford), but they are united soon enough in battle against a scouting force of aliens who have been picking up humans and examining them as an apparent prelude to taking over the planet. (As often happens in movies like this, the aliens have some great technology and remarkably inefficient uses of it; their human-collecting technique is ridiculous.) A small but brave band of outlaws, regular folks, native Americans and a mysterious woman (Olivia Wilde) forms to fight back, and it should not surprise you that they are ultimately successful.
The movie is not.
The major problem is tonal. That title, that idea, begs for cheekiness and there is little to be found in "Cowboys and Aliens." It takes itself, and its premise, so very seriously that it wipes out any potential entertainment in favor of a dragged-out march to a final conflict that feels like ones in many other movies, most obviously "Independence Day" and "Return of the Jedi." Moreover, the ease and swiftness with which the aliens wipe out humans in battle -- very bloody battle, by the way -- made me wonder how any of the humans managed to stay alive; it looks as if their force has been decimated in moments.
The stupidity of the aliens (rationalized by a line claiming they view the humans as nothing more than pesky insects) is another cliche, and one that "Cowboys and Aliens" embraces instead of mocks. But I kept expecting the film to be smarter than it actually is, to my increasing frustration.
Audiences, it appears, also proved less than enthusiastic. According to Box Office Mojo, "Cowboys and Aliens" cracked the $100 million mark in North America, but just barely, and that by itself was not enough to cover its cost. I have to think that the early viewers did not generate much positive word of mouth; they likely asked questions like "Why is someone as good as Sam Rockwell or Wilde stuck in this thing?" and "Really? This is all that could be done with cowboys and aliens?"
Maybe a decade from now someone will recycle the title and use it on a movie that deserves it. The current "Cowboys and Aliens" is far more appealing as an idea than as a movie. It has cowboys. It has aliens. It does not have much else.