Cowboys & Aliens
War of the Worlds (2005)
The War of the Worlds (1953)
They are the two genres that may be further apart than any others: western and science fiction. The difficulty of combining disparate styles like these is fusing them in a cohesive way while at the same time telling a story that is worthwhile. It can be easy to get caught up in the style aspect of such an undertaking while paying less attention to the other elements. While director Jon Favreau and his writers do seem to be aware of their need to tell a compelling story in Cowboys & Aliens, their focus leans too heavily toward establishing verisimilitude rather than evoking feelings for the characters. The result is a fun film with occasional sparks of emotion, but it isn’t one that viewers are likely to feel the need to revisit.
In the wild west, a man who we later learn is named Jake (Daniel Craig) wakes up with no memory of who he is. A metal device is clamped around his wrist. After a few run-ins with bad guys and the law, we learn that Jake is a badass. Not the Clint Eastwood or John Wayne kind of badass, though. More like Batman or someone from a Zack Snyder movie, the kind that can disarm, stab, shoot, throw, and punch multiple characters in the time it takes an onlooker just to realize he’s moved. Soon after we learn this about Jake, something unprecedented happens: aliens launch an air assault on the town he is in, abducting as many townspeople as they can with lasso-like cables. It is at this time that Jake learns what the metal thing on his wrist is: some sort of alien weapon, almost the only thing anyone has that can harm the creatures or their aircraft. After the invasion Jake, a seemingly heartless rancher named Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford), and a mysterious woman named Ella (Olivia Wilde) set out with a handful of townspeople to track the creatures and rescue those who were captured.
Stylistically, Cowboys & Aliens plays the western angle completely straightforwardly, with no tongue-in-cheek moments to be found. This was necessary, or the film would have lost all sense of urgency. While you could make some valid nitpicks in comparing the film to a John Ford or Sergio Leone work -- the characters are slightly too clean and good-looking, and the camera rarely seems interested in their surroundings -- at no point do the purely western scenes feel like they’re gearing up for the summer blockbuster elements that eventually ensue. It is frequently easy to forget that the film is science fiction at all.
When the aliens do show up, the speed and energy with which they are depicted allows them to avoid coming across as out-of-place creatures plopped into a western. Rarely does the camera stop to focus on the aliens themselves. The film is mostly concerned with the destruction they cause. Like the characters, the camera is unable to catch everything that happens, and most of the mayhem occurs so fast that it’s difficult to tell what is going on. In most cases, this would be a complaint, but in Cowboys & Aliens the action is not the center of the story; the repercussions of the action is.
While the outside of Cowboys & Aliens does a fine job of establishing an atmosphere that is both believable and dynamic, the story lacks in its attempt to fill that setting with something interesting. The characters are adequately created and realized in and of themselves, and they do undergo changes during the film, but we are never made to feel the emotion or difficulty in their experiences and personal transformations. Part of this is the result of the stone-faced demeanor of the characters. For the vast majority of the film, the main characters do not allow themselves to show fear, sadness, or any other emotion. They do things that would be frightening, and they experience things that would be saddening, but only on rare occasions do they express that fear or remorse. Because of this, we feel none of those emotions ourselves.
If any of the characters had been particularly complex or unique, they would be interesting enough for us to enjoy them from an analytical perspective, without necessarily connecting with them. Unfortunately, they are most often doing the things we would expect them to do. Even the amnesiac Jake, regardless of the mystery of his identity, does precisely what we expect him to do at every turn. Harrison Ford’s character, Dolarhyde, undergoes the greatest change in the film, but even with that being the case, we are surprised by his actions only at one or two points. These moments are enjoyable while they last, but they don’t make up for the rest of the story’s dearth of intrigue.
The inability to relate fully to the characters would not have been a serious blow to the film if the action had been especially inventive. However, even though it is staged in a unique sci-fi/western environment, the action itself is overall generic for science fiction -- monsters running around killing people while humans shoot guns at them. The drone ships that capture humans are an original concept, but they yield no particularly exciting scenes, save perhaps one. They simply race overhead and kidnap unlucky characters. You see these things happen the first time and there's nothing much left to wow you.
Cowboys & Aliens is not a bad movie. It is produced and directed well and has no serious flaws. However, it lacks anything to draw us in. It comes with a unique setup, but it ultimately delivers nothing we haven’t seen before and presents characters that, though consistent, are not engaging. It can be good for a single viewing if you’re in a mood for a mix of science fiction and western fare, but it doesn’t have much more to offer than that.