Spoiler Level: Safe beyond what you get in the trailer—but, as we shall discuss, you get WAY too much in the trailer.
With some movies, reviews are almost superfluous. What is there to say? I’m reminded of Tony Shaloub’s movie producer in Barton Fink, giving “guidance” to the struggling writer about his script: “Wallace Beery. Wrestling picture. What do you need, a road map?”
Cowboys. Aliens. What do you need, a review?
Cowboys and Aliens comes exactly as advertised; if you couldn’t tell the entire movie in your head from the title alone, you certainly could have extrapolated it from the criminally comprehensive trailer. (Note to trailer editors: while I admire your ability to tell an entire narrative in 2:28, you may want to leave just a few story beats for the actual movie to reveal.) The trailer follows, but, if you want to see the film, I don’t recommend you watch it:
For those of you who didn’t watch the trailer, a brief synopsis: inspired by the graphic novel by Scott Mitchell Rosenberg, Cowboys and Aliens tells the story of a man (Daniel Craig) who awakens in the New Mexico desert with no memory. He has no idea who he is—though he quickly demonstrates that he still knows how to fight quite well—and he has no idea where he picked up the high-tech gizmo that seems to be fused to his wrist. Wandering into the town of Absolution, he falls afoul of both the law and a local rancher (Harrison Ford), while coming to the attention of a beautiful woman (Olivia Wilde) who seems to know more about what’s happened to him than he knows himself. But then, some strange lights appear in the sky, and all hell breaks loose.
So here’s the thing: Cowboys and Aliens is actually a pretty good B-movie. The cast (led by dueling glowerers Craig and Ford, but also including Wilde, Sam Rockwell, Keith Carradine, Clancy Brown, and other very competent character actors) is excellent, and the script provides many of them (especially Ford) with some decent material with which to work in between explosions. Jon Favreau’s direction is confident and coherent—after a summer of crappy action sequences it is a pleasure to see some that work—and the cinematography by Matthew Labatique (Iron Man 2, Black Swan) is pretty enough, even if it never quite reaches the breathtaking scale the gorgeous New Mexico landscape demands.
Yes, the western elements, and the indistinguishable alien hordes, are entirely by-the-book: Cowboys and Aliens mashes together two all-too-familiar genres, but doesn’t aspire to deliver anything particularly new in either. (And the suggestions of a thematic tie-in between the two—with aliens doing to Whites what Whites did to the Native Americans—is both obvious and under-developed, especially since the actual Native Americans in this film are such stereotypes.) There are the usual ludicrous plot points and faulty physics—can a horse really catch up to a space ship?—but I’m more than willing to forgive that kind of thing in this kind of film.
Overall, on a basic filmmaking level, Cowboys and Aliens is a fine piece of work. (Executive Producer Steven Spielberg is making it a good summer for retro-style B-pictures, first with J.J. Abrams’ fantastic Super 8, and now with this entertaining, but less inspired, film.) An action-adventure movie this well made would usually make me—as Super 8 did—gleefully happy in a 12-year-old boy kind of way.
But I couldn’t love Cowboys and Aliens, and for an explanation of my muted reaction I keep coming back to that trailer. Super 8 was better written than Cowboys and Aliens, but its story was no more original and no less predictable. Yet Super 8 felt fresh, and Cowboys and Aliens—though well-made—felt stale, and I honestly believe the biggest difference is in their respective trailers.
Short of showing the actual aliens—which are nowhere near original enough to be much of a surprise—the trailer gives away nearly everything there is to know about Cowboys and Aliens. I could have written a treatment for this film just from the trailer, and it would have been 90% accurate, including the supposed “plot twists.” (One example: Yes, I understand, a shot in the trailer that implies viewers have an outside chance of seeing Olivia Wilde naked is probably good for ticket sales, but it more or less ruined one of the few surprises Cowboys and Aliens might have otherwise offered. What’s worse—spoiler alert—the film doesn’t even provide the consolation of actually seeing Olivia Wilde naked.)
I enjoyed the Harry Potter movies, but I could never really love them because I already knew the story: the only potential surprises or pleasures lay in seeing how the filmmakers realized that story—an experience rather like a hearing a lesser cover-band do your favorite song. Sadly, that’s the same feeling I had watching Cowboys and Aliens, even though I wasn’t at all familiar with the source material. Cowboys and Aliens is a fun, well-made movie, and I did enjoy it. But if the filmmakers had trusted me to see it without first showing me every plot point, every set piece, every location and battle, there was a chance I might have loved it.
Mr. Favreau, Mr. Spielberg: I’m sorry to say it, but the publicity for your movie more or less spoiled my enjoyment of your movie.