Cowboys & Aliens ReviewAugust 2, 2011
What could possibly go wrong with Arizona, cowboys, and of course, aliens?
More often that not, genre mash-ups in the film industry usually end up being disasters. When I first saw the trailer for Cowboys & Aliens, I thought it would be laughably terrible; yet as I watched more footage and read about the story, I became interested. When I was offered a free ticket yesterday afternoon, I simply decided to go for review purposes. Also, the film is based in my homeland of Arizona, so why not? This review will be a summary of my thoughts concerning Jon Favreau’s latest film, Cowboys & Aliens.
It’s hard to summarize the main conflict since it isn’t exactly explained until the third act of the story, but I’ll try to summarize things as best as possible. The film opens in the middle of nowhere in 1873 Arizona, and an amnesia-stricken loner (Daniel Craig) awakens from unconsciousness. The man has no memory of his past or his identity, and he is puzzled by a mysterious shackle embedded around his wrist, along with a strange wound near his torso. Later after stealing clothes, weapons, and a horse from armed travelers, he comes across the small town of Absolution. While there he comes upon a local troublemaker named Percy Dolarhyde (Paul Dano), who is later arrested by the town’s sheriff (Keith Carradine). As time goes by, the man is revealed to be Jake Lonergan, a wanted criminal that is also apprehended by the sheriff. That night, the two are about to be escorted out of town when ruthless aliens attack the town in spaceships, bombarding buildings and snatching townsfolk with roped cables as they go. From there, Jake discovers that the device about his wrist is actually an otherworldly weapon, and with it he fires a laser at an incoming spaceship. With the assistance of Percy’s dad Colonel Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford), a mysterious woman named Ella Swenson (Olivia Wilde), a saloon owner named Doc (Sam Rockwell), among others such as his former gang of criminals, Jake sets off to seek revenge against the aliens and rescue the abducted townsfolk.
One of the biggest selling points of Cowboys & Aliens is the mash-up of both cinematic Western and science fiction, and sadly, the latter isn’t as satisfying as the Western part of the story. As far as substance is concerned, the film is at its best when the human characters are involved in conflicts that are present in most Westerns, such as old rivalries, shootouts, and the like, because the actors are convincing enough in each of their roles. I’ll get back to that in a little bit, though. There is also a decent amount of drama and humor in these scenes, and, in my opinion, the Western sequences of Cowboys & Aliens are its shining moments. Also, I was pleased that Jon Favreau took some time to develop the characters he was given, even though some of them were still a little stereotypical. The writers certainly wrote the film in a way that will evoke feelings of nostalgia for those who grew up with Westerns, so most people will most likely love those parts of the film (I know that I did).
So, remember how I noted that the acting also compliments the Western aspect of Cowboys & Aliens? None of the actors will get nominated for an Academy Award, that’s certain, but every cast member fits into their roles quite well. Daniel Craig has done well in the two latest James Bond films as Agent 007, so he fits perfectly in the role of Jake. Harrison Ford also seemed to have fun playing an old, hardened war veteran; Olivia Wilde is decent with the material she is given (even though some of the time she is exploited for her charming looks), and although Sam Rockwell doesn’t do as well as he has in past roles, but he gets the job done by providing some dramatic depth and comic relief. The cast as a whole is decent enough, but the leads (especially Daniel Craig) are certainly the highlights as far as acting goes.
Where Cowboys & Aliens is fatally flawed is in how it mixes in generic science fiction with a genre as timeless as the good old Western. I understand that this film is based on a graphic novel of the same name, but the focus on alien/cowboy warfare does substantially bring down the quality of the film. The script that was written by several talented writers is decent enough in the Western sequences, but as the science fiction kicks in, the material falls prey to clichés commonly found in the genre. In other words, when the action heats up with the aliens, Cowboys & Aliens becomes just your average action film. In addition, the aliens themselves are disappointingly generic, even though the way that they abduct humans is a fresh concept for mainstream cinema (their motives for human extermination are absolutely ridiculous, though). All of that doesn’t necessarily mean that the action isn’t fun, I only wish that the sequences that focus more on sci-fi could have harbored as much substance as those that accent the qualities of a good Western. That means that in those cases, the producers favored style over substance. Even so, there is plenty of fun to be had, even if some of the events that occur amidst the action can be predictable.
Like most summer blockbusters out there, Cowboys & Aliens does sport impressive cinematography and even more stunning visual effects. The action is thrilling, exciting, and altogether intense, largely because of the production values. Not to mention that Harry Gregson-Williams’ musical score for Cowboys & Aliens does justice for both of the film’s respective genres. Even more so, the film’s sound effects are absolutely awesome when heard through a movie theater’s surround sound system.
The case with Cowboys & Aliens is a curious one, because I certainly don’t regret seeing it, but it’s certainly not a film that I can recommend to most people (a similar case to those I had with Cars 2 and Transformers: Dark of the Moon). Like I said, perhaps the one thing that has hyped the release of Cowboys & Aliens so much is the farfetched blend of Western and science fiction elements, and sadly the science fiction aspect of the film tears down a film that wasn’t even truly great cinema to begin with. For much of the film’s duration, I was treated to a somewhat generic action film that one would expect to be the result of an adaptation of a graphic novel. A better script, more creative sci-fi material, and better aliens certainly could have made this a great film. Nonetheless, it is a fun action flick with decent enough acting from a great cast, and it has a great message about the value of teamwork and setting aside differences for unifying under a common interest (which if you haven’t figured it out, is defeating the aliens). You might even say that Cowboys & Aliens is like a Westernized version of Independence Day, except, the latter film was better… in summation, Cowboys & Aliens actually does work as a Western to some extent. Just don’t expect it to be that necessary revival that the genre needs.