Jon Favreau continues to prove himself as an excellent director with Cowboys & Aliens, a movie that is a good summer flick that ends up being not quite as good as the sum of its parts. It’s got a ton of energy, the cast is solid, and the effects are great, so even though the final product is missing that extra “spark,” it’s still a serviceable summer crowd-pleaser.
Favreau and his massive writing squad (Alex Kurtzman, Roberto Orci, Damon Lindelof, Mark Fergus, and Hawk Otsby) are clearly passionate fans of the western genre, and their love for the material comes through on screen. The director takes a modern approach to framing vintage character archetypes, and his history of fantastic visual effects from the Iron Man films serves him well yet again. This is much more western than sci-fi, and that’s to the film’s benefit; the characters take this alien invasion seriously, and there’s no joking tone or winking at the camera. It’s a big world, full of similar vistas, gorges, and sweeping plains that you might find in an old John Ford movie. Favreau also battled the studio when they wanted the movie shot in 3D; he held his ground and shot it on film to capture the texture of those classic westerns that came before.
Daniel Craig is stoic, rugged, and dirty throughout – in other words, he makes a great cowboy. Taking a page from Eastwood’s playbook, he lets his actions do most of the talking; his wandering amnesiac is a total badass, reminiscent (in attitude) of Kurt Russell’s Wyatt Earp in Tombstone. Harrison Ford gives one of his most inspired performances in years as the ridiculously-named Woodrow Dolarhyde, a hardass father with a good heart. The supporting cast does a good job, but ultimately their parts seb a bit undeserving of their talents. Guys like Sam Rockwell, Clancy Brown, Paul Dano, and Walton Goggins have earned a bit more than what they were given here.
The alien design is pretty by-the-numbers (although better than the atrocious designs in Battle: Los Angeles), and their excuse for invading is laughably bad. Olivia Wilde’s exposition gets a bit dreary at times, but it’s evened out by some memorable chase sequences across stark scenery via land, air, and sea. The climax also features some memorable shots, including one in particular that was clearly influenced by Neill Blomkamp’s District 9.
Listen, I liked this movie. It won’t be among my favorites of the year or anything, but the structure and predictability is exactly the kind of “turn off your brain” entertainment that most people go to the movies for in the first place. It’s well put-together, Favreau puts some style in it, and Craig and Ford go toe-to-toe in entertaining roles. But I still can’t shake the feeling that it was too predictable, the script suffers from its familiarity, and ultimately the movie just ends up coming up short. For summer fluff, Cowboys & Aliens is fine. Looking for anything more? Keep searchin’, cowboy. Until next time…