EDITOR'S NOTE:This review of Cowboys And Aliens contains numerous spoilers. Proceed at your own risk.
By Ian Grey
Press Play contributor
Only Jon Favreau would have a plot-defining female character tortured by cruel aliens, lasered to bits, and burned to a crisp, and have none of it have any emotional effect on you. That he succeeds is not failure—it’s what he wants. It’s typical of a method that’s brought Favreau riches in summer-film pop-genre cinema.
If it seems I'm implying that Favreau is a bad filmmaker—anything but. He’s a fabulous manipulator. He knows, for example, that if you fill your Panavision image with a prone woman’s body shown from the clavicle up, you will of course become very anxious regarding what the hell is going on from the clavicle down. Especially when that woman is manacled to a high tech table in an alien experimentation lab deep beneath a mountain in The West where westerns happen. And something seems to be pulling on her and then letting go. And pulling again. And then the director cuts away lest we fall into the land of horror with its deep emotions and noisome subtexts. Because if there’s one thing you have to give Favreau credit for, it’s not dwelling too much on anything.
Because dwelling—that’s where the drama is, and so that’s where Favreau’s camera isn’t. Favreau, the undisputed king of flatline date movies. Nobody failed to get lucky because his or her partner couldn’t stop thinking about a Favreau Saturday night.
Anyway, Cowboys and Aliens. It seems to be about Jake (Daniel Craig), who wakes up in the desert on a scalding hot day minus his memory but with that cool high-tech wrist bracelet you see in the ads that blows the hell out of things and has this tiny projection 3-D guidance system that totally rocks.
But where was I? Oh. Jake. Jake goes to a pioneer town and he’s promptly thrown in the hoosegow. It seems he’s a robber and possible murderer. Or not. Suddenly, Paul Dano, playing a young asshole, shows up to shoot things up because that’s what assholes do in Westerns. (Yee-haw!) Dano’s character does not matter, nor do those of a terrific character actor cast whose existence is a series of fake-outs. (Walton Goggins as a near-retarded criminal, or Clancy Brown as a priest, Keith Carradine as squinty sheriff, etc. All show up, say some lines, disappear. The union is sending your checks as we speak, thank you.)
Anyway, Dano’s character’s father is named Woodrow. He's played by Harrison Ford as a cussed asshole, thus creating a family resemblance. While Woodrow is causing his own social disturbances, we get a look at Olivia Wilde -- and not a moment too soon. Smashing in clinging flower-print gingham dresses and anachronistic Marc Bolan-y top hats, Wilde plays the mysterious Ella, who just lurks around the back and sides of frames for a while, as though weighing the wisdom of being in this movie. Then oily-looking alien crafts that look like super-sized malevolent moths attack. They throw out nano-ropes that whip around humans and corral them into the ships like so many cattle. Jake and Woodrow lead a posse to the mountains and the alien lair. If you don't like spoilers, stop reading now.
Unlike the Iron Man movies, which were pretty much entirely bifurcated enterprises -- part live action, part manga, with little effort to blur the transitions -- Cowboys and Aliens endeavors to create a single world to house both its pioneer town/Wild West reality and its buried-under-the-desert, super-mothership CG showdowns.
Unfortunately, Cowboys and Aliens cinematographer Matthew Libatique (Black Swan) offers us a prairie that differs from other western prairies only in how it accentuates the desert elements. (That the images sometimes suggest cowboys in Iraq—now there’s a movie title!-- shouldn’t be misconstrued for anything other than an aesthetic choice, one that unfortunately looks too much like simple overexposure.) And after Deadwood, it’s hard to accept such a rote assemblage of storefronts as The West. This could be yet another manifestation of Favreau’s fiendishly in-reverse way of doing things. A Deadwood-style pioneer town would be teeming with texture, color and visual drama, and thus anathema to Favreau way; thus the choice to go with the brown-on-brown, backlot look of a late Gunsmoke episode.
As for Craig—he’s on angsty-Bond default, trading in the tuxedos for singlet, boots and revolvers. It’s always a pleasure and fascination to explore the lines in his face, to look into those impossibly blue eyes, to watch his panther/thug moves. There are a fair number of laughs in the film, many of them from Craig and Favreau perfectly timing the hero's clocking of sundry idiots. Go Team Craig.
And Ford? He glowers. So that leaves Olivia Wilde. I worry for her career. She owns a beauty so dazzling, so absolute in its porcelain perfection that it seems she’ll be doomed to always be cast as supernaturals, which is obviously the deal here. Thing is, she’s a very good actress. Her Ella, distastefully designed as fanboy bait only, revolts in depths and color. There’s something just the tiniest bit weary and aching when she sees Jake remembering really bad things (or what would be really bad things if Favreau didn’t use his filmmaking skill to mute them). And other times there’s something fascinatingly hermetic in her affect: she’s so into her own quiet strangeness that you watch more closely, waiting for the human tell. Favreau smartly favors very close close-ups when filming Wilde, and she never lets him down.
Which leaves us with aliens. Imagine if someone took grey leather and stretched it over a Terminator’s skeleton, made heads that are too small with huge black-blue crystalline eyes and arms that are too long and end in oversized bio-swords, then threw in chests that split open to reveal incredibly gross combination mouths/arms. The creatures are strong, super-fast, sadistic, and bloodthirsty, and they look cool getting blown up. Favreau may approach the the Western part of the movie with a whiskey bottle of don’t-care, but for the aliens part -- the part that will attract our cineaste nation of boys -- he went above and beyond. For the rest of us, there’s Wilde. While Woodrow and his Indian friends impotently shoot six-shooters and arrows at these fast bastards, Ella guides Jake through the electric blue intricacies of the creepy mothership’s innards. While everyone is falling off horses and/or rocks, Ellen performs one act of heroic selflessness after another.
When the dust settles, a major character actually has the temerity suggest that another not feel too bad about another character dying. And so Favreau’s anti-feeling aesthetic hits its apotheosis -- but not before the movie's only non-white character can expire with a beatific remembrance of living his life’s dream of serving under the white man who hated him.
Normally this sort of thing might get me all worked up. But I think Favreau’s low-impact brand of magic has worked on me. The film began dissolving from my memory the instant I sat down to write about it. In a week, I doubt I’ll recall anything but those cool aliens.
Ian Grey has written, co-written or been a contributor to books on cinema, fine art, fashion, identity politics, music and tragedy. Magazines and newspapers that have his articles include Detroit Metro Times, gothic.net, Icon Magazine, International Musician and Recording World, Lacanian Ink, MusicFilmWeb, New York Post, The Perfect Sound, Salon, Smart Money Magazine, Teeth of the Divine, Venuszine, and Time Out/New York.