Every once in a while, a movie reminds me I’m not a science-fiction fan despite my writing for the Web. This is not to say I dislike the genre. In fact, Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991) remains one of my favourite motion pictures of all time. However, I wouldn’t give a film a pass just because it’s got sci-fi elements the way I do Resident Evil: Apocalypse (2004) because of its awesome bazooka-wielding mutant zombie. That, you see, is the warped judgement of a horror fan, short for fanatic.
It’s also the sort of mentality on which would-be blockbusters like Cowboys and Aliens keep banking. The film is based on Scott Mitchell Rosenberg’s graphic novel, which follows the recent ninth art trend of matching two incongruous pop culture elements and calling it a high concept: Ninjas vs Zombies, Zombies vs Robots, Sarah Palin vs the World, etc. Now, I haven’t read Rosenberg’s book, but, as a general rule, these comics don’t exactly burst with creativity, confusing silver-age pastiche with pot-induced cynicism.
John Favreau’s adaptation is, I think, more sober, perhaps too sober. It stars Daniel Craig as Jake Lonergan, a tough-as-nails cowboy who wakes up in the desert with a plasma-shooting bracelet and a bad case of movie amnesia. Movie amnesia is a less-than-rare condition that afflicts leading men with sinful pasts and frees them of their baggage just long enough for them to turn a new leaf. I don’t consider this a spoiler, seeing as Jake immediately heads to a town called Absolution, where he meets his supporting cast. Subtle.
There we’re introduced to a slew of western archetypes, including the broken civil war hero (Harrison Ford), the street-wise preacher (Clancy Brown), the family man who must learn to fight (Sam Rockwell), the Native American tracker with a debt to the white man (Adam Beach), and, uh, the woman (Olivia Wilde). We’re told the war hero has the town in a vise. We’re told the family man regrets coming to Absolution. We’re told lots of things, but all we’re shown is cowboys riding in a straight line and battling generic-looking aliens. Sometimes they squabble, but every subplot is resolved by the characters undergoing drastic personality changes without explanation.
The only arc to escape the Big Book of Cowboy Clichés centers on Wilde’s mysterious character, Ella, who seems to know more than she lets on. Where has she learnt of the aliens and their technology? What does she gain from following Jake? Why is she so interested in his love for a dead prostitute? How does she even know about the woman? Regrettably, only half these questions are answered. The rest are left dangling as if a different creative team took over the film’s climax, generating a number of spaceship-sized plot holes.
This seems a pattern with Cowboys and Aliens. Consider the extraterrestrials’ shifting modus operandi. They spend the first act kidnapping humans and chaining them to a hypnotic energy ball. A flashback shows them cutting into the prisoners and bottling internal organs. Then it’s revealed they are looking for gold and think of man as an insignificant pest, prompting viewers to ask, wouldn’t it have been easier to just mine the precious metal and skadoodle rather than attract unnecessary attention from the natives?
In fairness, the movie does explain that the creatures are conducting experiments to find our weak points, but that only raises further questions. First, if the aliens kidnap cowboys on a regular basis, it stands to reason they’ve already uncovered at least one of our vulnerabilities: we’re easy to kidnap. Second, many of them carry plasma weapons that can blow us to smithereens. Again, they may have stumbled on a major weakness of ours: we can be blown to smithereens.
Come to think of it, why don’t the aliens blow us to smithereens? Why don’t they raid our gold reserves or at least shoot our heroes from a distance instead of rushing naked into the field and subjecting themselves to our deadly spears and six-shooters? I know. I know. The extraterrestrials think of us as mere insects, so they’re not being as careful as they should be, but then why are they conducting experiments to find our weak points? We’re right back where we started.
I suspect I wouldn’t be nitpicking if Cowboys and Aliens had kept my mind occupied with some degree of wit or at least camp, but Favreau and his legion of screenwriters approach the material without a hint of humour, something I never would have expected from the director of Iron Man (2008). The whole thing comes across as filmmaking by numbers. The final product is neither good nor particularly bad. It’s just uninspired.
As I mentioned, the problem may be that I don’t find science-fiction inherently awesome. Already I can hear Captain Straw Man shouting with indignation, “Really? You’re going to discuss logic and narrative consistency in a flick called ‘Cowboys and Aliens’? What the hell did you expect? Also, you have big ears, and your mother dresses you funny!” Granted, Cowboys and Aliens delivers both cowboys and aliens, but is it so wrong to want a movie to exceed its title?