COWBOYS & ALIENS, a great-looking genre hybrid with an excellent cast, was a catastrophic flop in 2011. Grossing $174,822,000 is hardly sparrow feed, but the production cost was $163,000,000, then prints and advertising added another $150,000,000. The math problem would be obvious to a 19th-century barkeep, let alone some thing able to traverse the universe. The fickle fingers of finance may have been the final factor, but the firing squad of blame was circular. *
New Mexico Territory, 1873. ‘Jake Lonergan’ (Daniel Craig, grim mode), ends up in the town of ‘Absolution’, with a case of amnesia, some weird weapon on his wrist, and a surly attitude. Harsh rancher ‘Woodrow Dollarhyde’ (Harrison Ford, on full gruff) rides in with an attitude to spare, but the expected showdown takes an otherworldly turn when unearthly craft attack the town and carry away some of the people. After a good deal of facing off with exchanges of snarls and backstories, the he-bulls lead a combination of ranch hands, townsfolk, outlaws and Apaches, who all put aside how much they don’t like each other and team up to battle the invaders.
Fair’nuff, but how ’bout a few jokes to lighten the oppressively downbeat mood and array of glum characters? The noisy action gets repetitive, let alone conveniently fanciful. With a lighter touch, the bizarre plot would give the excitement a charge: played in such dead seriousness it just reveals the conceptual absurdity. Craig and Ford try to out-glower one another, and Ford’s eventual turnabout (Dollarhyde is a bastard) is meaningless.
With barely anyone to like or relate to, we’re left with production embellishments to hold attention for the 118 minute spin.Harry Gregson-Williams gives it a flavorful score and Matthew Libatique’s cinematography is first rate. Lot’s of fury, not much fun. Directed by the most-capable Jon Favreau, who tried his best but was stymied by the basic concept clash, multiple studios pressuring’s, star’s unhelpful behaviors and scripts that were schizoid. **
Top quality supporting cast saddled with focus-fudged material: Olivia Wilde, Sam Rockwell, Paul Dano, Adam Beach, Clancy Brown (a good guy for a change), Noah Ringer, Walton Goggins, Keith Carradine, Julio Cedillo, David O’Hara, Raoul Trujillo, Ana de la Reguera, and Abigail Spence.
* “All hat and no cattle”, the saying goes. Fourteen years of development scrimmage had four participating studios with 15 producers in various capacities oversee five credited writers, with at least seven more who contributed, tooling off a 2006 best-selling graphic novel by Joan D. Vinge, which came from an idea originally pitched as a movie back in 1997. The pitch was just an idea, literally no more than a drawing of a spaceship and a cowboy.
Genre-splicing walks a fine line. With westerns as comedies it can work if the scale is kept within reason—Destry Rides Again, The Paleface, McClintock!, Cat Ballou—but blown up to spectacle—The Hallelujah Trail, The Lone Ranger, Wild Wild West—- the gags collapse under the weight. Science-fiction parodies have better luck. Anyway, putting the Old West and Outer Space together here, without some humor as glue, went up a creek without a photon.
** Favreau: “I learned the lesson that you can make the best bacon sundae in the world, but if people don’t want to eat that flavor of ice cream…”