– Summary –
Director : Jon Favreau
Year Of Release : 2011
Principal Cast : Daniel Craig, Harrison Ford, Olivia Wilde, Sam Rockwell, Paul Dano, Clancy Brown, Keith Carradine, Noah Ringer, Adam Beach, Abigail Spencer, Walton Goggins.
Approx Running Time : 140 Minutes
Synopsis: Waking up with no memory of who he is or what has happened to him, a lone gunman must team up with a mean cattleman and a beautiful stranger to rescue townsfolk abducted by aliens.
What we think : Nowhere near as bad as I’d heard, Cowboys & Aliens manages to cleverly interweave the tropes of the classic Hollywood Western with a cutting-edge sci-fi flavoring to generate an entertaining – albeit not always exciting – conglomeration of both. Daniel Craig scowls for most of the film, Harrison Ford growls for most of the film, and Olivia Wilde is absolutely wasted in a nothing role; for all the films’ problems – and they are plentiful – there’s still a lot to enjoy about this bizarre and often hilarious film.
Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman can’t take a trick, can they? The pair, who wrote the first two Transformers movies for director Michael Bay, left that franchise to take on the challenge of bringing to life the 2006 graphic novel Cowboys & Aliens; I bet now they wish they hadn’t. Orci and Kurtzman’s screenplay for Transformers: Revenge Of The Fallen, was derided by most (including me) for being bloated, offensive, incoherent and ultimately bereft of soul – not exactly big positives for any writer to have on their CV. Jumping ship on Bayformers, which in hindsight perhaps wasn’t the wisest thing to do considering the following film to Revenge, Dark Of The Moon, turned out to be awesome, the pair got together to help script this film – and ended up being once more on the receiving end of some pretty scathing reviews. Cowboys & Aliens, which is indeed based on a comic book, attempts to turn both genres on their ear by meshing, melding and combining elements of both to produce a cool, albeit emotionally empty Hollywood production filled with plenty of scale and money, but not a lot of focus. Iron Man director Jon Favreau, who had a loyal following since his efforts turning Marvel’s Iron Man into a big screen success after a number of smaller projects, was given directing duties on this project, ensuring at least a sense of occasion and ability to bring an audience to the cinema came with the film. So is Cowboys & Aliens as bad as many critics would have you believe?
Jake Lonergan (Daniel Craig) awakes in the desert outside of the Western town of Absolution with a case of amnesia – he has no recollection of who he is or how he got there – and a weird metallic bracelet on his wrist. After arriving in Absolution, Lonergan runs into town preacher Meacham (Clancy Brown), who sews up an equally strange wound on Lonergan’s abdomen. As Lonergan’s memory begins to return, he runs foul of the son of local cattleman Woodrow Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford), Percy (Paul Dano), before the local sheriff, Taggart (Keith Carradine) discovers Lonergan’s outlaw past and arrests him. A mysterious woman known as Elle (Olivia Wilde) seems to know more than she’s letting on, and seems to have a connection with Lonergan of which he’s unaware. When Dolarhyde arrives to get his son out of custody – because he’s mean and nasty and “owns this town” – his efforts are thwarted by an alien attack: the aliens appear intent on destroying the town and abducting a number of the townsfolk, to do with them we know not what. When it becomes apparent that Lonergan has an alien weapon on his wrist, he and Dolarhyde form a posse to go after the aliens and rescue their kin. Joining them are local publican Doc (Sam Rockwell), the sheriff’s grandson Emmett (Noah Ringer), Dolarhyde’s right-hand-man and Indian tracker, Nat (Adam Beach), and a dog. As they follow the alien tracks through the desert, Lonergan’s memory begins to return, and he learns that his wife has been abducted by the aliens before, as was he, and it was during his incarceration that he managed to break free and end up in the desert with amnesia. Once the posse locates the enormous alien craft buried in the canyons of the desert, they mount an attack against a far more formidable foe than any of them could possibly conceive.
Cowboys & Aliens is a bit of a conundrum, in a way. It tries to present itself as both a classic western, and an outright sci-fi epic, and almost succeeds in doing so with style. However, the inherent disparities between to the two genres ends up just killing any kind of emotional hook a viewer might have for the film: it’s no Star Trek, nor is it another Unforgiven, even if Jon Favreau shoots the film like he’s making both. Like trying to mix oil and water, there seems to be some things viewers won’t accept in a traditional stand-alone film like this, and trying to bring science fiction and the Western genres together was always fraught with danger. Audiences might not…. accept it. And with the benefit of hindsight, they didn’t. The film isn’t a horror show like many critics will try and explain it as, nor is it the best action film you’ve ever seen, but it is eminently watchable even as an experiment gone wrong. The root cause of the film ending up the way it did was less to do with the efforts of the production team or even the acting, but in the concept itself – a factor which no-one could have overcome. Jon Favreau’s direction is solid, his action sequences are large-scale and epic, and the individual facets of the film are inherently okay, it’s just the juxtaposition of the competing genres that overtook both premises and ended up negating each other. Had Favreau made simply a western, or a sci-fi, without trying to combine the two concepts [edit: having said that, Back To the Future III did this rather well, so it obviously can be done], the film would have look and felt comfortable to an audience – I understand that trying to take audiences out of their comfort zones is considered “brave film-making”, but when it goes wrong, it goes horribly wrong.Thankfully, Cowboys & Aliens doesn’t go horribly wrong, but it’s certainly not the success the producers might have hoped. Though, it’s certainly not for lack of trying.
The story itself isn’t anything new or brave – it’s essentially a Western Rescue Mission with lasers – and neither are the characters within it. Lonergan, the archetypal “man with no name” made famous by Clint Eastwood, has been given to British actor Daniel Craig to produce, and while Craig has a certain performance style (dare I say, a singular performance style) he just doesn’t have the grizzled, brooding mystery Eastwood made his name with. Craig’s intense, for sure, but his single-note performance here leaves viewers cold as a lack of emotion within the character fails to elicit any heart within the narrative. Harrison Ford has infinitely more personality here than he has in any of his other recent cinematic output, his gruff, growling voice a perfect fit for the mean-ass cattleman (and cool monikered) Dolarhyde. He just sounds awesome. The rest of the cast all do a top job with their ensemble roles – Sam Rockwell’s Everyman publican-come-doctor is the comedy relief, even if he has barely any comedy and ends up just fretting over his abducted wife for the majority of the time, and Clancy Brown is instantly likeable as Absolution’s resident preacher. Keith Carradine does Grizzled Western Sheriff like nobody else, and Adam Beach does a great job in the thankless role of local Indian tracker, Nat. His arc, alongside Ford’s grumpy rancher, is a far better narrative story than Lonergan’s with Elle, even if the focus of it is lost amongst the visual effects and glorious cinematography. Yet, for all the positives I can give about the cast, it’s the character and performance of Olivia Wilde which has me most in a flap. Not only do I have no idea what her character was included for (apart from upping the female quotient in the film) as far as emotion or narrative goes, but Wilde just doesn’t look like she belongs anywhere near a bunch of rough-n-tough cowboys. Don’t’ get me wrong, I think Wilde is definitely worth looking at as an actress: as long as she’s appropriately cast in a role suited to her performance ability. With the character of Elle, Wilde flounders, and the major (and I mean major) WTF? moment before the final act comes from so far out of left-field you’re just sitting there wondering what on Earth the writers were thinking. Wilde brings nothing emotionally to the role, her attempt at “mysterious” seeming just as vacuous as her “resolutely heroic” style, and it cripples the character and the film.
Several sub-plots are thinly developed too, leaving audiences a little miffed for their investment. The sheriff’s young grandson, ably conveyed by Noah Ringer, has an arc just begging for further exploration, as does Rockwell’s Doc, yet the films ample pace and lack of focus undoes any good work these guys might produce. Often, these subplots seem included to bulk up the story instead of moving it forward – and Lonergan’s back-story with his whore wife (don’t ask, just go with it) seems the most ill-fitting element of the mythos Favreau is trying to weave. Even the subtle plot thread between Dolarhyde and his employee Nat feels underwhelming, even if it’s the strongest character beat of the entire film. Perhaps had the film focused on a single character arc more, instead of spreading itself across three or four, might have helped the somewhat cliched plot from drowning it ambivalence and an inherent style-over-substance feel.
As far as production values go, Cowboys & Aliens certainly doesn’t spare the horses. It’s a large scale film, epic in the extreme, and yet Favreau can’t generate excitement beyond the superficial thanks to some awkward casting and some genuinely haphazard plotting. The opening twenty minutes or so are classic Western: the nameless stranger, the dingy bar where he beats down on several men and wins, the local bully’s son riding on the coattails of his elder, even the Grizzled Preacher and Grizzled Sheriff – every Western cliche is trotted out at the opening. Once the aliens arrive, and the film becomes a rescue mission, Cowboys & Aliens takes a sharp left turn into Happy Families, as each of our characters must band together against a common enemy, and you get the sense that the five screenwriters listed on this movie were just ticking the boxes in the How To Write A Western Handbook. There’s nothing new in the Western elements of this film. The sci-fi moments, however, are entirely awesome. Off-kilter, sure, but awesome on their own. The aliens are mean, nasty and without compassion – they are taking our gold and experimenting on us for the eventual invasion by their army. The combination of puppets, CGI and practical effects to produce the alien beings is superb, and as good as anything seen in cinema in the last three years. The brutality of the human-vs-alien Last Stand battle is actually quite shocking, quite bloody, and I was actually surprised by how little Favreau left in the bag in this regard. It skirmished alongside District 9 at times, and that could only be a good thing.
I do wish to mention two things about the film I felt were above reproach – the musical score by Harry Gregson-Williams, and the wonderful cinematography by Matthew Libatique. Gregson-Williams’ score is pitch perfect, a wonderful combination of orchestral and electronica encapsulating the emotional battle between the old world of the Western with the modern world of the aliens, and I really loved it. Which isn’t hard, because I’m a long-time fan of his work. Libatique, who lensed both Iron Man films for Favreau, as well as all of Darren Aaronosfky’s films since Pi, does a solid job evoking the Western genre, and transitions over to the science fiction elements without even pausing for breath. Both these guys have only helped to make Cowboys & Aliens a better film, so I applaud them for their work.
Cowboys & Aliens can easily be described as a film with missed potential. It could have been a franchise starter (although, having said that, I struggle to see how this story could have been continued after the denouement) and it could have been an absolute blast. It also could have been an absolute disaster – despite what many critics and bloggers have said, this film isn’t the Worst Film Ever Made contender it’s been made out to be – and I think whatever success you can draw from its skewiff core you can’t deny the quirky concept does work in its own sweet way. The cast all play this film straight (well, with the possible exception of Harrison Ford, who gives the impression that he knows it’s all a little crazy!) and that helps, and coupled with the production values and sense of bravado Favreau injects into a fairly pedestrian script, the film is a fairly entertaining waste of time to be had. Sure, there’s issues aplenty with the characters and the script, and the incongruous nature of injecting an alien invasion into a Western might prevent the film from finding its true audience (Western fans will be put off with the inclusion of creatures from another world, and sci-fi fans might find it hard to swallow having aliens being outgunned by a bunch of dudes on horses with six-shooters) but as far an entertainment goes, it’s a long way off being terrible. It’s no keeper, and I doubt I’ll ever feel the need to watch it again, but I did enjoy it for what it was, and that’s as good a recommendation as I’m prepared to allow for this film. Simply put – it’s entertaining waffle.
What others are saying about Cowboys & Aliens:
Dan The Man thought it was average: “This film also takes itself way too seriously, which in some cases isn’t so bad, but honestly when you have a film about cowboys and aliens duking it out, you can’t really expect people to want characters talking as if they just got of an episode of All My Children.”
Don’t ask Cut The Crap, they hated it: “Part Western, part alien invasion, all disappointment.”
Sam at Duke & The Movies thought it was terrible: “…So now, what are we left with ladies and gentlemen? I’ll tell you: a sitting duck of a film, filled with blanks faces, clichéd dialect, ridiculous smack-downs, and an infusing of genres that mold with zero fluency.”
Ted over at Flixchatter didn’t think too highly of it: “Unfortunately, with a weak script, there’s not much [Favreau] could do except adding one clichéd scenes after another. Performance wise, Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford are pretty good in their respective roles. It’s too bad Sam Rockwell and Olivia Wilde don’t have much to do but being part of the gang.”
Claire at Cinematic Delights didn’t like it either: “Kudos to Jon Favreau for attempting to make a serious piece about cowboys and aliens but sadly, it just doesn’t work.”
Brian at The M0vie Brothers despised it, and doesn’t hold back in his review: “What an expensive mess of a film. How could they have possibly green-lit this script and lure Daniel Craig, Harrison Ford, and Jon Favreu to work on it? If you’re wondering if the movie is just as disjointed as the title, you’d be right and then some.”
And the guys over at 3 Guys 1 Movie didn’t think much of it either: “It’s hard to go wrong with this kind of star power in a movie, but they did it. Hey, it’s not the worst movie you are ever going to see, but the plot is redonkulous, and there are parts that will just leave you scratching your head.”
What do you think? Is Cowboys & Aliens the greatet film ever made, or is it the turkey everyone says it is? Disagree with our review, or wanna have your say. Saddle up and let rip in the comments section below!