It only figured that after some amount of time what would be my desire to find the farthest stretches of western revisionism would result in a film that completely failed on all accounts. To think that I seriously considered going out of my way to spend money on seeing Cowboy & Aliens in theaters upon its initial release is absurd, something I am glad I did not do, because it could have clouded my opinion of many of the film's actors, as well as director Jon Favreau, who is clearly more of a puppet to producers visions than the voice that would create the ever-enjoyable Iron Man. While it does borrow heavily from the western genre tradition, it is far from a well delivered film, in fact, I would argue that the film is nothing more than a set of events paired together by a Hollywood think tank whose only concern for the film was that it had an appropriate amount of action and managed to make the most use of Harrison Ford as possible. If you pay attention during the opening credits the executive producers and writers for the film appear to essentially be the same group, and the nod to Steven Spielberg as a producer is evidenced when one realizes that the film is, essentially James Bond and Indiana Jones versus E.T. and his friends from Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Again it is within the framework of the western genre, so my point of contention is not there by any means...trust me I wanted to enjoy this film. Yet, if one considers that such a large amount of money was dumped into this film ($163 Million to be exact) it is frustrating to see the visual deliveries come across as cheap, repetitive and lacking in the sort of grandeur one might assume that is ostensibly borrowing from two of the most cinematic genres known to film history. I mean, imagine how many films Shane Carruth could make with that kind of money, especially considering that the vision that was Primer was executed on a budget of seven thousand dollars, yet has more visual magic than any scene in Cowboys & Aliens which is further baffling when you consider that pretty much every moment in the film cost well over seven thousand dollars to make. While it serves its place in the post-modern 21st century moviegoing canon, Cowboys & Aliens fails in regards to pretty much everything its sets out to do on screen.
Cowboys & Aliens primarily focuses on Jake Lonergan (Daniel Craig) a loner and ex-criminal who inexplicably awakes in the desert with a deep wound in his stomach and a hunk of metal attached to his arm. Needing medical attention Jake moves quickly to the nearest town, Absolution, where he meets a local preacher who treats his wounds. After awaking somewhat healed Jake makes his way out to the town, only for it to be in the midst of a semi-shootout started by the young Percy Dolarhyde (Paul Dano) after being berated by the local saloon owner Doc (Sam Rockwell) who is fed up of Percy using his connections to Woodrow Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford), an infamous gunslinger, to bully the town. Jake stepping into the action unaware of these elements, puts Percy in his place, resulting in the sheriff showing up and placing him in jail, despite the concerns of the townsfolk and it is during this time that people realize that Jake is indeed a wanted criminal, also leading to his being jailed. Both Jake and Percy are to be shipped to the marshall, only to have Woodrow emerge and attempt to stop the event from happening, however, it is also during this confrontation that aliens attack the town capturing men and women in the process, both Percy and Doc's wife among the group. During the battle, Jake realizes that his metal bracelet is capable of releasing huge burst of destructive energy which he uses with a bit of success against the aliens. Jake and Woodrow are initially at odds with one another, but when it becomes apparent that they will need one another's help they join forces, eventually getting the help of the town prostitute Ella (Olivia Wilde) who later reveals herself to be a different species of alien hoping to help Earth survive the attack. Eventually, a set of memories Jake has been having allow for him to better understand the nature of how to attack these aliens, specifically once they find their ship buried into the ground mining for gold. After a battle both within and outside of the ship, the aliens are destroyed and Jake retains his previously lost memory and the various captives are returned to their loved ones. The group returns to Absolution to begin rebuilding, but Jake decides his life should exist somewhere else, his departure occurs with a promise by Woodrow and the sheriff to claim that Jake had died during the invasion, as to avoid any trouble with his past in the future.
If that plot description sounds a little brief, yet incredibly all-over-the-place that is because it is precisely how Cowboys & Aliens exists as a film. At no point is any commitment made to make the alien element of the film a complete hybrid with the western genre that dominates the films narrative. In fact, if you took out that element to this film it would still have a similar narrative flow, all be it equally basic and misdirected. There are a ton of western tropes incorporated within this film, but as soon as the film sets any single one of them up for analysis it is immediately knocked down to move onto the next "important" sequence in the film, which may or may not deal with aliens, in most instances it has very little to do with the latter portion of the title. In fact, from what I have read Favreau and the others working on the film were invited to Spielberg's house for screenings of a variety of classic western and the director gave them suggestions on what they could include in the script. It is really a shame that Spielberg was not involved beyond this point because it is clear that they appeared to take the suggestions as not "possible" options, but instead "necessary" ones, blowing past very key social commentaries and even deeply engaging religious inquiries, again to seemingly more important narrative task. If it were just dealing with these tropes that proved problematic I would chalk it up to a relatively refined palette, certainly more so after nearly a month of westerns, but it is the case for every damn element of this movie. For example, there are way too many characters in this film, many of which purely serve as veritable canon fodder for the main characters to go on their quest. Doc would be seemingly content to bemoan his life from behind the counter of his saloon were it not for the loss of his wife, just as Woodrow would appear to remain cantankerous and vile, a state of mind that drastically alters when he is faced with not only the very real possibility of losing his son, but his grandson as well. Hell, even Jake, a character who could benefit from a vague storyline, is given just enough information for a viewer to consider empathizing with him, but the focus on returning his memories only to have them prove rather arbitrary in the films closing moments. When he leaves town it is supposed to be the into the sunset scene that is both stoic and heartbreaking, but in the case of this, at times, insufferable film, his departure is welcomed because it is quickly followed by the credits.
Key Scene: If I had to chose something I guess the underwater shot of a camp being attacked by aliens is one of the few well-executed moments in the entire film.
Avoid this film, there is really no reason to engage with it and I can think of a ton of films from both genres individually that are much more worth one's time.