Dear Cowboys & Aliens,
I find myself wondering how a film that plays itself out like a cross between The Searchers and Independence Day has left me feeling so cold. I am not trying to say that I didn’t have a good time while I was with you. I don’t want anyone to get that impression. However, in spite of the fun we have had together, I feel that I must share with you some of the misgivings I’ve been feeling over the past few days since we met.
You begin with a silent, unnamed protagonist – a well-cast Daniel Craig – waking alone in the desert with no idea how he got there, or why a strange metal device has been affixed to his arm. However, the wound on his chest and the violence of the Old West force these questions out of his mind until he finds himself in the midst of an extraterrestrial raid on a down-on-its-luck town. Here, his wrist-mounted iron shackle comes to life and allows him to inflict the only real damage on the marauding ETs, which leads to him becoming the defacto leader of a search party to find the townspeople carried off by the UFOs.
From there the Man With No Name (soon revealed to be Jake Lonargen) joins a stock of old west archetypes on a quest to hunt down the ‘demons’ and ‘get our kin back.’ With him are the local cattle baron – played with appropriate grizzle by Harrison Ford – and his adopted Indian son; the sharpshooter priest; the timid saloon owner; the sheriff’s grandson; and an alluring but mysterious cowgirl. Along the way they will meet Indians, bandits, and come together as an unlikely but formidable force against the alien menace.
And while this all works well in its own right, I feel as though you are still an opportunity missed. While all of your characters have arcs, they are arcs that have been well trodden before. Many of your secondary characters are portrayed by great character actors, and yet they are given story beats so rote that one wonders why you even bothered to include them.The amount of time spent on them far outstrips the time necessary to get your point across. One of the greatest gifts of using archetype of cliche in filmmaking is their allowance for an economy of storytelling. You fail to take advantage of this gift.
Your alien antagonists too are slightly undercooked for my tastes. I feel as though their motive makes them ripe for a parallel with the encroaching American frontiersmen, and yet aside from their obvious technological superiority, they are never anthropomorphized enough in their actions to make them really terrifying. Your title would suggest the aliens taking the role of a technologically superior ‘Indian’ enemy in terms of conflict, yet you never deign to make the monsters anything more than that – monsters, like plague of overstuffed locusts.
In terms of pacing and structure, you might have also benefited from more than one big conflict. A smaller skirmish between the cowboys and aliens prior to the climactic battle might have added to the tension, allowing the rough riders to build a greater sense of dread and tension as the final confrontation approached, knowing how ill prepared they were.
But I don’t regret seeing you. We had fun, and you definitely showed me a good time. Your effects were top notch, and as I said previously your actors commit to the roles without winking, which allows for a kind of straight-up western experience that I love in film. And, in spite of what I said regarding the lack of build up to the climax, this sustained action set piece delivered a low of crowd-pleasing moments.
So don’t worry about my seemingly damning criticism. It’s only because you showed so much promise that I am able to find these deficiencies. A lesser film would have simply been dismissed. You’re at once a better and more frustrating experience – a good film that squandered the opportunity to be great. Still, not enough of a shot off target to miss my seal of approval.
Brian J. Roan