Film review: Cowboys & Aliens

In which High Noon meets high-concept sci-fi carnage - and shoots blanks, says Duncan Wu

August 11, 2011

Cowboys & Aliens

Directed by Jon Favreau

Starring Daniel Craig, Harrison Ford and Olivia Wilde

Released in the UK on 17 August

There's no pleasing an alien. If Hollywood is to be believed, they are not peace-loving folk who collect stamps in their spare time, and they don't make the long journey to planet Earth to enjoy the climate. They do sometimes come here for the food - but that's not necessarily a good thing. In Cowboys & Aliens, they are carnivorous, but here for reasons other than the cuisine: they're gold prospectors.

The film gets off to a good start with a scene in which three travellers encounter a solitary man in the desert. When they attempt to arrest him, they are slaughtered in an act of gratuitous and disproportionate violence. The man turns out to be an outlaw, Jake Lonergan (played by Daniel Craig), who has lost his memory and needs help working out his motivation for being in this film. After another violent encounter, this time in a bar, he receives it from an alien in human form, Ella (Olivia Wilde).

By this time he has been arrested for "arson, assault and mayhem", and is just about to be put on trial when the real action begins: alien spaceships descend and start nuking everything in sight, which freaks out even nasty Colonel Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford), the laird of the manor whose wayward son is among those abducted during the hostilities. Is this confusing enough? No? Well, it's not long before the surviving humanoids and their dog embark on an Odyssey-like journey in search of the abductees, leading to a Babel-esque construction that proves to be alien HQ.

I take my Stetson off to Daniel Craig; he acts his way through this incoherent miasma as if he believes every second of it, but he's in a minority. Harrison Ford is woefully miscast as the tyrant with a heart of gold. His part would have been better incarnated by Keith Carradine, whose talents are squandered here in the role of the local sheriff who, having been abducted by aliens, disappears early on.

For sheer preposterousness, the film's title takes some beating. Alas, its producers, having exhausted their stock of originality, settle for second-hand ideas elsewhere. The motif of the search is lifted from John Ford's The Searchers (1956); the design of the aliens adapted from the Alien films, bad table manners and all; while Olivia Wilde's only decent scene reworks the concluding moments of Robert Day's She (1965).

The aliens are homicidal, animatronic nobodies, which I suppose is what one expects of low-budget films that don't take themselves seriously. And that's the worst crime of all - its perfunctoriness, evident in the anachronisms, implausibilities and narrative sleights of hand, which smack of a cynical disregard for its audience. Why, for instance, would gold-prospecting aliens go in for human abduction? Why, if these aliens are so dangerous, is it possible to finish them off with a kitchen knife? And if their sole interest is gold, why don't they just take over Fort Knox?

More importantly, what can it mean to pair these disparate genres in one film? If the western speaks of modern America in essential form, it may be that gold-obsessed aliens represent foreign speculators who now threaten its already depressed economy - the Chinese, for instance, who place great store by gold. Indeed, the aliens here do seem quite stereotypically oriental in their work ethic and single-minded determination to get things done. But no politically correct Hollywood director is likely to admit that his film is a bid to revive fears of a "yellow peril", and in any case that claim would only dignify a film that abandons all logic about halfway through.

Cowboys & Aliens is a shoddy, formulaic piece of hokum that tests one's patience to the limit - partly, I suspect, because its makers began by inventing an intriguing title, then scraping the barrel for the ramshackle plot to justify it. Anyone who has just devoted his or her energies to a strong vindaloo and 10 pints of lager may not notice; the rest of us will have more rewarding ways of spending what's left of the long vacation.

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