We've all known that the western has been dead for quite some while. Well, according to Blade Runner director Ridley Scott, the science fiction genre is ripe for burying, too. At least he said as much in The Sunday Times a few years back: "There’s nothing original. We’ve seen it all before. Been there. Done it."
So, accepting Scott's premise, why not combine the two corpses to create something vivid and original and very much alive?
This apparently was the intention of director Jon Favreau (Iron Man) and the three screen-story composers and five screenwriters who tackled the adaptation of Scott Mitchell Rosenberg's graphic novel. They failed, however, to restore life where there was none. Cowboys and Aliens is DOA.
One of the first missteps that the creative souls involved in this venture committed was the depoliticizing of Rosenberg's book, which begins with "every conqueror believes himself moved by a higher power. The imperialist's actions are always justified by necessity, compassion, or divine providence. For those who believed in it, manifest destiny was a noble endeavor -- a God-given duty to spread the principles of the United States throughout the world in general...and North America in particular."
Rosenberg is laying the groundwork for an anti-imperialist adventure that reveals that the victims here were once themselves victimizers. Several of his pages are divided into two: one side depicting the White Man's maltreatment of the Indians, the other showing aliens decimating inhabitants of other planets in a similar manner.
Worse than a lack of political awareness, what we get with C&A are cardboard characters spouting leaden dialogue ("My name is Ella. Where did you get your bracelet?"), sophomoric chatter ("Don't yank it. It's not your pecker.), and clichéd gabbling ("Jesus, Mary, and Joseph! How did they build this thing?")
Starting off not unlike an early Clint Eastwood/Sergio Leone western, our hero (Daniel Craig) wakes up alone in the New Mexico Territory. The year is 1875. He has no memory of his past or how a strange, heavy metal bracelet is on his left wrist or how he received his still bleeding stomach wound. Immediately, this Man with No Name kills three nasty varmints, after which he rides into town, where a preacher sews him up.
Asked if he can recall anything, the stoic cowboy replies, "English."
Then before you can shout, "Hee Haw!" our Mr. Strong-and-Silent knees the town bully in the crotch. This is the crotch of Percy (Paul Dano), who's the son of the richest, nastiest citizen in town, the cattle rancher Woodrow Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford). Oh, no! This spells trouble, especially when Sheriff John Taggart (Keith Carradine) sees a wanted poster featuring the headshot of our hero. He's really one Jake Lonergan, a violent gang leader who's accused of a whole list of despicable actions. Can it be true? Jake himself doesn't know.
But before anyone can think this matter out, the town is attacked by spaceships that firebomb the buildings and kidnap citizens. Can Jake save the day? Ella Swenson (played with the intensity of a Barbie Doll by Olivia Wilde) is sure he can.
So Jake, along with the townspeople, Dolarhyde and his employees, an Indian tribe, Ella, and an orphan, go off to massacre the aliens and reclaim their kidnapped mates, children, and friends.
Will they succeed? Of course. Are there any thrills? A few scenes work well, but you'll be recalling the films they were stolen from at the same time your nervous system is being slightly jolted.
However, anytime a character has more than two lines of uninterrupted dialogue here, be prepared to doze off. On the plus side, the whole cast has believably dirty fingernails. If this attention to detail had also been brought to the plot and the characters' chatter, C&A might now be riding high in the saddle instead of galloping off into the triumphant quicksand of blah-ness. - Brandon Judell
Mr. Judell is currently teaching "Queer Theater" and "Intro to Mass Communications" at The City College of New York and is Coordinator of The Simon H. Rifkind Center. He has written on film for The Village Voice, indieWire.com, The New York Daily News, Soho Style, and The Advocate, and is anthologized in Cynthia Fuchs's Spike Lee Interviews (University Press of Mississippi) and John Preston's A Member of the Family (Dutton).