An uneasy blend of Western and science fiction is another reminder of the dangers of pandering to the Comic-Con mentality.
Based on a 2006 graphic novel by Scott Mitchell Rosenberg, the story begins in 1873 when the enigmatic Jake Lonergan (Daniel Craig) wakes up in the Arizona desert with no memory and a mysterious device around his wrist.
On entering the local town he discovers a local lawman (Harrison Ford) is after him, but when mysterious alien forces attack, people soon realise this stranger might hold the key to their salvation.
The easiest way to describe the premise of Cowboys and Aliens is that it plays like an unholy mix of Unforgiven (1992) and War of the Worlds (2005), although it never really works as a western or an alien invasion movie.
Ultimately the biggest problem is that it never rises above its goofy high-concept premise and simply lurches from one set-piece to another, whilst scrambling to find coherence in half-baked clichés.
It’s a difficult film to fully analyse without giving too many plot spoilers away, but the twists range from the predictable to the ridiculous and the presence of five credited screenwriters is revealing.
The huge gaping holes in the story are compounded by thinly written roles: Craig is uneasy as the mysterious loner; Ford hams it up as the cranky lawman; Wilde is utterly wasted in a curious role; and the supporting cast (including Sam Rockwell) is treated little better.
This is not to say that the film is a total write off.
Director Jon Favreau shoots the Western elements with some skill, making great use of the New Mexico landscapes and, in some scenes, cinematographer Matthew Libatique brings the same visual pop that made Iron Man (2008) so vibrant.
The look of the period is convincingly realised with the production design by Scott Chambliss and costumes by Mary Zophres, whilst the visual effects by ILM (supervised by Roger Guyett) are generally first-rate.
Whilst the cowboys are watchable, the aliens are walking clichés that we’ve seen before in many movies, with the same physical attributes, spacecraft and vague motives that characterise the sci-fi genre.
Although the opening is intriguing, by the end there is very little audiences haven’t actually seen before, including: token memory flashbacks, gruff characters learning to become nice, and traditional enemies joining forces against a common enemy.
At one point, there also appears to be a deeply questionable visual reference to the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster.
After a protracted development history over fourteen years, it bears the hallmarks of an idea that has been prodded and embellished with the sole intention of getting geeks excited at Comic-Con.
In fact, a quick look at the history of this project reveals that’s exactly what happened.
After the success of Iron Man, perhaps Jon Favreau felt he owed something to the fans that went nuts about the project at Comic-Con in 2007 as that film worked and gave a boost to his career.
But Iron Man 2 (2010) and Cowboys and Aliens are casebook studies of the perils of pandering to the fans: both surfed a wave of pre-release hype, but were proved inferior films when they finally came out.
Last year may have marked a watershed for the major studios and Comic-Con: both panels for Cowboys and Aliens and Scott Pilgrim vs. The World got people excited in the fevered atmosphere of Hall-H, but baffled mainstream audiences.
Scott Pilgrim bombed and although it is still early days for Cowboys and Aliens, which opens in the US this weekend, the early signs aren’t good and it may even suffer the ignominy of being beaten by The Smurfs movie this weekend.
One of the early marketing problems it faced was that some people mistakenly thought the premise was comedic, which although not true, does actually speaks volumes about the deficiencies of the film.
The final film feels like the result a studio pitch-meeting that geeks were invited to (“Cowboys and aliens? Awesome!”).
But the Comic-Con mindset is all bout celebrating what a movie could be, rather than what it actually is: in recent years list of Comic-Con flops grows ever longer (Sucker Punch perhaps being the ultimate example) as the hype of Hall H fades into the reality of the multiplex.
Maybe its time for the studios to allow filmmakers to focus on making better films rather than whipping up hype at conventions several months before it has even been released.
There is a director who has managed to do this very successfully. His name? Christopher Nolan.
> Official site
> Reviews of Cowboys and Aliens at Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes
> More on the original graphic novel at Wikipedia