The Who2 Blog

Cowboys & Aliens: What Went Wrong?

One terrific trailer, several famous Hollywood geniuses, and $163 million in wasted budget later, one of the most-anticipated movies of summer 2011 is a baffling dud.

Cowboys & Aliens — with the all-star roster of rising star Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford onscreen, Ron Howard and Brian Grazer producing, Jon Favreau in the director’s chair, and Steven Spielberg as executive producer — opened on 5600 screens and still couldn’t crack $90 million in its first three weeks of release.  (By contrast, Harry Potter and the Deatlhy Hallows, Part 2 took in $90+ million in its first day.)

At the 20-plex where we saw the film on Saturday night, we slipped into the 7:20 screening of Cowboys & Aliens just as the previews ended and still got great seats. The theater was a quarter full.

What in the world happened?

The short answer is, the movie just isn’t much fun. It lacks fizz. Everyone involved is clearly working like mad to put it over, including Craig and Ford and hottie-of-the-moment Olivia Wilde and a battalion of old-fashioned horse wranglers, gunsmiths, and cowboys-and-Indians extras. But it just doesn’t take off. It barely even revs its engines.

Which is no crime. Hey, sometimes a story just don’t click.

What IS a crime, and a bafflement, is how that truckload of powerful creatives (including seven credited writers) ignored some of the oldest rules of the screenwriting book when they put together this film. 

I say this more in sorrow than in anger, etc.  But it’s true. The blunders were so obvious and puzzling that afterwards I started listing them out in my mind. Here is that list.

It will be of interest only to hard-core screenwriting aficionados, and to the few thousand people who actually saw Cowboys & Aliens.  Spoilers abound.  Proceed at your own risk.

Hero Introduction 101

Why ignore the tried-and-true techniques for establishing the hero and getting the audience on his side?

Consider the opening scene: Daniel Craig wakes up alone and amnesiac in the desert. (So far, so good!) Three Throwaway Bad Guys with bad teeth and a mongrel dog ride up. Now, we all know and relish what’s about to happen: our hero will take them down so we can see what a swell stud he is.  But first, of course, the three TBGs have to treat our man badly so that he’s justified in taking them down. They do him dirt, so he can do them righteous double-dirt back. It’s basic stuff, as basic as the cranky police captain shouting at the rebel detective in a cop movie.

(Think of A History of Violence, where director David Cronenberg gives his Throwaway Bad Guys a whole early scene of their own where they actually shoot an innocent little girl, just so that later we’ll be glad when the hero takes them down.)

But for some reason, Cowboys & Aliens skips this crucial step. The TBGs don’t horsewhip Daniel Craig, or lasso him and drag him around, or even make fun of him very much.  About the worst thing they do is talk about him in the third person. (How rude!) Before they can do anything bad, Craig overpowers and kills all three of them. He proves he’s a stud, for sure, but we don’t especially cheer him for doing so.  

$163 million and you can’t get me 100% on the hero’s side from the start?  It’s a very weird missed opportunity.

Lovable Dog 101

Having blown its chance with Craig, Cowboys & Aliens then makes the exact same mistake with the dog! After Craig fights the bad guys and the dust settles, we see their mutt just sitting there, looking on like a dope. Craig takes one of the dead men’s boots and clothes and horse and rides off, and the dog just trots after him.  

Now, what kind of lickspittle mongrel watches his master get killed without so much as lifting a fang to help out? And then happily trots after the guy who killed him?

Not a very likable dog, that’s what.

This problem is not hard to solve. It’s a twofer. Just before the bad guys first ride up, we should see one of them literally *kick the dog* in the chops. Kicking the dog — the oldest bad-guy trick in the book, right? That way we know they’re terrible men, and we can’t wait for Craig to take them down. Plus then we know why the dog doesn’t jump in when the fighting starts.

So Craig is not only fighting the bad guys, he’s rescuing the dog. And that’s also why the mutt becomes incredibly loyal to Daniel Craig and helps take down the aliens at the end of the film… right?

Wrong. In this movie, astoundingly, the dog doesn’t help take down the aliens at the end. When the final battle comes, as we knew it would, the dog simply disappears. He does nothing, except trot into frame, looking adorable, after it’s all over.  Wha–?  How can you have a movie where cowboys, Indians, ranchers, and outlaws all team up to fight invading aliens, and yet not have our old companion, the dog, representing all Earthly dogkind, in there growling and snarling and clamping his fangs on some alien shinbones?  It’s bizarre! It’s an outrage!  But it happens here.

I don’t get it.

Groin-Kicking 101

Twice in this film, Daniel Craig gets out of a difficulty by kicking a guy in the groin. That’s a clear violation of the Ancient Hollywood Rule of Groin-Kicking, which states that two groin kicks are either one too many or one too few. (Or ten too few, if it’s an Adam Sandler movie.)

A groin kick is either a one-shot surprise or it’s a running gag. Two groin kicks is neither. Its just a lack of imagination. If seven writers can’t figure out how to get the hero out of two unrelated tight spots without having him just kick someone in the groin, you’re in trouble. 

If you ARE going to have your hero kick guys in the groin repeatedly, why not take it over the top? How about a scene where he kicks an ALIEN in the groin? The thing writes itself! Hero is cornered, hero remembers his favorite trick, hero kicks hideous alien in the groin… only to discover that the alien’s groin isn’t in his groin! It’s in his armpit! Ho ho! Then three minutes later, our hero cripples another alien with a kick to the armpit!  

Please pay me $500,000 for this bit.  

The Cowboys & Aliens writers just didn’t seem prepared to go the extra mile here. Maybe there was a basic disagreement: is this a drama or a comedy? Maybe three writers wanted a third groin kick but the other four didn’t.  It’s hard to say.   

Space Alien Trouble

64 years after Roswell and we still have only three kinds of big-budget movie aliens:

   1) Kindly bug-eyed curiosities
   2) Hideous fanged beasts covered in slime
   3) The alien who looks just like us because he took human form, speaks all languages, etc.

You’re telling me this all-star cast of writers, director and producers with a $163 million budget couldn’t come up with a new kind of space alien? Isn’t that supposed to be the fun part of movies, preproduction? Designing great new things? But here it was apparently, “Naw, just do the usual #2 — we’re in a hurry.”

These aliens have a little stomach-opening trick that reveals another set of slimy arms and hands… even though they already have regular slimy arms and hands. Why? Dunno. Maybe it was supposed to be an homage to the old Alien double-mouth trick (or to the little “Quaiiiid… Quaiiiid” stomach guy in Total Recall). Maybe the homage part got lost in the shuffle.

Or maybe Jon Favreau just said “Have ’em do that thing where there’s an extra set of fangs or arms or whatever, you know. Let’s go to lunch.” That doesn’t sound like Jon Favreau at all, but… there hadda be some reason, right?

Speaking of aliens and lack of imagination: how about the end of the film, where Craig is fighting off the aliens with his special bracelet-gun? He’s at the mouth of a tunnel, shooting the aliens as they come down the tunnel one by one. But uh-oh, suddenly the aliens are getting smart: SIX of them are coming down the tunnel together.  What new thing will our hero think of to fight them off?

Again, we’ve all seen this set-up. We know how it goes and we love it. Our guy innovates. He pulls out some super-trick to conquer the new threat. Maybe he spots a leftover bundle of TNT, or a newfangled Gatling Gun. Maybe the solution was set up earlier in the film. (“Whatever you do, don’t press that red button on your bracelet-gun.”) In any case, the hero rises to the occasion and we love him for it.

In this film… no innovation, no bright idea, nuttin’. Craig kills all six of the aliens one by one, the same way he shot the others.  He just shoots faster.

Are you kidding me? 

The “Why Would They Do That?” Factor

In some movies you find yourself whispering to a friend, “I don’t understand what just happened.” In this film you find yourself whispering, “I understand what just happened, but why would he do that?” The plot turns on things that make no sense at all.

WHY does an alien take off his critical wrist-weapon thingy and place it in easy reach of Daniel Craig right before he tortures him? No reason. Craig needs the gadget to make the whole movie run, so it just happens.

(Would Goldfinger unholster his pistol and lay it six inches from James Bond‘s hand just before torturing him? That would be laughable. But it happens here.)

WHY would Indians just throw the dead body of a stranger onto a fire in the middle of their family camp at night?  Dunno, they just do. The plot needs it.

WHY is the weakling bartender also a doctor? Nicknamed Doc? And if he’s a doctor named Doc, why is running a crummy bar in a dumpy Western town said to be his “dream”?  Dunno. Maybe a detailed and very sensible explanation ended up on the cutting room floor.  It sure ain’t in the movie.

Mismatched Stars

Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford, that’s the big pairing. James Bond and Indiana Jones, yay! But the two never seem to click. Maybe they needed more mano-a-mano scenes together.
Harrison Ford’s craggy face is certainly used well. (I swear they actually built up the famous scar on his chin rather than hiding it.)  But this movie cries out for him to be a true baddie, like Gene Hackman in Unforgiven, and I think the writers (or maybe Ford himself) just couldn’t go there. By the end he’s still the same old Endlessly Heroic Harry.  

At one point the action actually stops for 60 seconds so a character can carefully explain to the Indians what a nice guy Harrison Ford really is deep down. 60 seconds!

The bummer is, Ford was perfectly poised to be that stock western bad guy we all know and love: the cattle baron who terrorizes the townfolk. At the start of the movie we see that his son is a tremendous gun-toting jerk, which sets Ford up nicely. (Just like Chuck Conners in The Big Country!) But when it comes time for Ford to play the true heavy, he can’t stick the knife in.

At the one moment where that might happen, where Ford and the local sheriff are about to face off, the aliens butt in before anything dramatic can happen. Shouldn’t Ford and the sheriff be fist-fighting, or rolling around on the ground with their hands on each other’s throats, before the alien ships come screaming over Main Street? Wouldn’t that be cool?  Apparently not.

It’s too bad, because this whole story is so perfectly set up for people who really hate each other — the rancher, the townsfolk, the outlaws, the Indians — to be forced to work together, against their will, all led by this strange drifter. (You know, our hero!) Instead we get three groups who just kinda-sorta don’t get along. There’s no friction. 

Daniel Craig certainly has the cold blue-eyed stare going, and I give him full credit. That’s an incredibly valuable screen talent. (Ask Steve McQueen!)  But he doesn’t get much to work with. And Craig is so very lean that at times you think “Gee, he’s a scrawny little guy.” In one scene I got the feeling they’d put him on a smallish horse so he wouldn’t look too tiny.

If I’m sitting in the audience thinking that, it’s probably not a good sign. (Maybe they should just go back to having taller actors walk in trenches, a la Alan Ladd.)

Spielberg Trouble

You have to wonder if the heavy hand of Steven Spielberg didn’t mess up this script.  

Besides the supposed-to-be-lovable mutt, Cowboys & Aliens is saddled with a perfectly witless little boy who does nothing but occupy screen time as a cutesy-poo mascot in the grand Spielberg tradition.  He’s supposed to be an orphaned Indian of some kind, but you could just as easily take Short Round from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and insert him here.  You could handle that rewrite in 20 seconds, using the crude western lingo so popular in this film: “His daddy was a Chinaman workin’ on the railroad — got blowed to smithereens makin’ a tunnel down in Dead Man’s Gulch.”  

It doesn’t really matter what race this kid is, because all he’s here to do is tug at heartstrings.  When Harrison Ford gives the kid a Very Special Old Knife at the start of act two, even the teens making out of the back row of the theater know the li’l tyke will have his heroic moment in the last reel, stabbing an alien with it.  What else could the knife, or the boy, be for?

If Spielberg had been advising Jon Favreau on Iron Man, there would have been an Iron Boy sidekick flying right alongside Tony Stark and getting big laffs by saying “Eww, gross!” when he kissed Pepper Potts.  If Spielberg had been advising Favreau on Swingers, there would have been an 11-year-old boy riding along as the boys went to Las Vegas, probably sitting on the stoop of the trailer and saying “Eww, gross!” while the boys were getting it on with Dorothy and her friend inside.  

Look, all hail Steven Spielberg for his first 15 years, when he was an innovative and brilliant filmmaker. For the last 25 years, though, he has been all about The Formula, which is as rigid as the concrete footprints outside Grauman’s Theater. Asking Spielberg to change his formula is like asking the CEO of Coca Cola to loosen up and fiddle with the ingredients.

So don’t try telling Spielberg that Cowboys & Aliens doesn’t need a fractured family! There will be fractured families, even if the aliens have to kidnap dozens of wives and sons and daddies and hold them in slime-filled suspended animation for no reason at all.

The IMDB says Spielberg has 129 career credits as producer or executive producer — including ELEVEN films and TV series this year alone. Maybe he ought to lay off the overseeing jobs and let the youngsters manage their own scripts for awhile.

Summing Up

You start with an acclaimed graphic novel, hire a half-dozen writers, put together a dream team of producers, and it turns out to be a mess. 

As my wife commented, “At least they didn’t give in to a cameo by Sigourney Weaver.” Look, there has to be a reason for this kind of thing. Maybe the easiest joke is the truest: aliens stole their plot.

In any case, here’s the good news: For another $163 million, I hereby offer go back and remake the movie. 


Related Biographies

Share this: