Cowboys and Aliens Dir. Jon Favreau

[Universal Pictures; 2011]

Styles: Western, monster movie
Others: Freddy vs. Jason, Alien vs. Predator, Battlefield Earth, Iron Man 2

I haven’t yet seen Transformers 3, but I’ll go ahead and make the assertion that Cowboys and Aliens is the most overproduced product to come out of a summer that’s more than bursting with high-tech, empty-concept blockbusters.

Jon Favreau, who skated into directorial mega-success with one good idea — to shrewdly cast an outsider as a superhero — proves with this fourth movie that he’s lost without a personality like Robert Downey Jr. to gloss over his vapid style. Put another way: he doesn’t have a ringer to lighten up his latest movie, and without casting stunts, Favreau is indistinguishable from any other hack. Cowboys and Aliens isn’t the series of clever allusions to beloved genres that it intends to be. It’s an unintentional mangling of those allusions. This isn’t Winchester ‘73 crossed with War of the Worlds. It’s Shanghai Noon meets Battlefield Earth, for the simple reason that those two high-concept stinkers had nowhere to go with their big ideas either. Don’t let studio-bought critics fool you with rhetoric about genre-bending, narrative daring, or Iron Man-esque tongue-in-cheek humor. Cowboys and Aliens is two bad ideas for the price of one. The only question is, which half is worse?

The aliens aren’t much. They look a bit like the creature we get glimpses of at the end of Super 8 and a lot like the prawns from District 9. Their motive for preying upon a small Texas gold-mining town sometime in the late 19th century is, when discernible, only slightly more arbitrary than the concept of the film they inhabit. They’re lazily designed and possess no readable emotions, consistent skills, or distinguishing traits. At times, they’re depicted as hailing from a hyper-advanced civilization of technological wizards. At others they move and shriek like lumbering bears, trying to club people’s heads off. Plus, they’re robbed of any mystery by being shown early, often, and in full view.

The aliens are a bust. The cowboys, presumably, were intended to carry this movie. Of course, it’s abundantly clear that everything in the cowboy sections is meant to be an homage to classic Westerns. So we get the impenetrable Daniel Craig carefully cocking a pistol held close to his ear, like Eli Wallach in The Good, The Bad and the Ugly; a despotic Harrison Ford bloviating for vigilante justice and the slaughter of Indians like John Wayne in Red River and The Searchers, respectively; a hammy Paul Dano shooting up an Old West set like Powers Booth in Tombstone; an exhausted-looking Keith Carradine perched on a chair overlooking a dusty street from the porch of a saloon like Henry Fonda in My Darling Clementine. Favreau, or at least a few of his five screenwriters, knew what touchstones they wanted to point audiences toward. It’s just that all they’ve done is point. Unlike Tarantino’s mashups, which are done with both abandon and structure, these references haven’t a sturdy plot to give them meaning. They’re just plopped into sets that look like Disney World rides and surrounded by cowboys who look like movie stars taking a smoke break in a 10-gallon hat.

Cowboys and Aliens is more than what it looks like, but not in the way it intends. Rather than an inspired marriage of beloved tropes masquerading as a summer action movie, it’s a blithe collision of marketing strategies dressed up as something fun.

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