• Following Us

  • Categories

  • Check out the Archives

  • Awards & Nominations

Non-Review Review: Cowboys & Aliens

This movie was seen as part of Movie Fest, the rather wonderful film festival organised by Vincent and everybody else over at movies.ie. It was well worth attending, and I’m already looking forward to next year. Good job all.

It’s a testament to Jon Favreau’s skills as a filmmaker that Cowboys & Aliens ends up as a watchable, if entirely forgettable, addition to an ever-growing summer schedule. The movie is plagued by fairly fundamental problems, from a miscast lead to a failure to follow through on an interesting premise, right down to being one of the more blandly predictable blockbusters in quite some time. Favreau plays the best hand he can with the cards he has been dealt, offering a passable imitation of Steven Spielberg, but the problem is that none of it adds up to a win.

Not quite a blast...

Part of me suspects that the film might have been more palatable had it arrived before Super 8. Favreau channels his inner Spielberg to direct the hell out of the “Alien” portion of the film, with bold sweeping lights and impressive practical effects blended with high-quality digital work from Industrial Light & Design. All of this would add up to a more-than-acceptable imitation of the master director, but for the fact that Favreau is following a far more confident and capable tribute, one working with ingredients far stronger than the random mish-mash Favreau has been asked to fashion his stew from.

The problems are fairly basic. The most apparent is the fact that the “Cowboy” aspect of the production feels like a bit of an after-thought. The opening sequence, with Daniel Craig found in the desert, features an aggressive take-down more in the style of The Bourne Identity than A Fistful of Dollars, and the movies continues from there. The film evokes the period very well, but I’ve always believed that there’s more to the genre than a time and a place. No Country for Old Men feels like more of a traditional Western, playing out those grand themes about the things men must do to make their way in the world. I went into the film, based on the title, assuming I’d see how William Munney from Unforgiven would deal with his new intergalactic neighbours, and the film doesn’t really come close to doing that.

"Get off my planet..."

Cowboys & Aliens really just feels like a typical alien invasion movie, rather than one with a western blended in there as well. All the tropes are there – there’s the “token friendly alien”, the “beating aliens with their own advanced technology”, and there’s even a dogfighting sequence. And these people inhabiting the Old West seem to take it in their stride. The closest we get to a moment of disbelief is when Daniel Craig’s leading man exclaims, “We were flying!” That’s not nearly enough wonder. Discovering an advanced alien civilisation would blow our minds today, when we have names and know the atomic structures of all the stars in our sky – imagine how a bunch of frontier men would take it, living in a world that hasn’t even been fully mapped. There’s an early discussion where the preacher suggests the otherworldy invaders might be “demons”, but that narrative thread is never followed up.

The problem is that  alien invasion movies are a dime-a-dozen these days. You really need a new twist if you want to do it well. District 9 proved that these stories could, with a bit of tweaking, be Oscar-caliber material. This quite simply… isn’t. It’s just Independence Day with a new desktop theme, without the novelty, the self-conscious cheesiness and the quotable lines. This year alone, we’ve had Rango and True Grit prove that there is life yet in the Western, so it’s strange to see that aspect of the production so thoughtlessly ignored. Our two leads, played by Harrison Ford and Daniel Craig, really feel like they belong in a “buddy” movie. “One’s a stoic outlaw with a strange alien device attached to his wrist. The other’s a tough-nut former military officer turned hard-as-nails entrepreneur. Together, they fight aliens.”

He's mostly armless...

Take our lead character, as played by Craig, for example. The movie hints at a rather wonderful central Western dilemma: the kind of man he has to be, as opposed to the kind of man he wants to be. There’s a short scene in the film where he returns home to his wife with stolen loot, only for her to look at him with shame and disgust – that is a Western, right there. Unfortunately, the thread is never followed up on, and we never really get any sense of conflict for Craig’s character. In fairness, Ford’s former colonel does have hints of that conflict in his past, but it’s delivered so awkwardly through exposition that it’s tough to buy. If you want us to accept that this guy is tired of death and war, don’t introduce him killing (or severely maiming) one of his henchmen.

There are other problems as well. Daniel Craig looks distinctly uncomfortable for most of the film. His American accent is awkward, but his acting feels even moreso. He just looks completely out of place in this style of special-effects-driven blockbuster. I know it’s an odd thing to say about an actor cast as Bond, but he doesn’t seem to be in his element here. This doesn’t dampen my enthusiasm for The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, but I don’t think Craig is really a suitable lead for a big blockbuster film. On the other hand, Ford has done this sort of thing before. His performance is smooth and assured. It’s not spectacular, but it’s decent.

Girl gone Wilde...

The supporting cast does feel a little bit wasted. Favreau has always been great at building ensembles, so it feels almost cruel that none of them here really have anything to do. In particular, a short turn from Paul Dano as a spoilt and drunken brat is one of the highlights of the picture, and one of the very few moments where the film looks like it might turn into a Western. It doesn’t last though.

Favreau does a good job near the start of the film managing tension and build-up. While the alien attack on the town of Absolution is pure popcorn cinema, it’s well-handled pure popcorn cinema. I can’t help but feel, though, that the aliens felt more ominous and threatening when kept in the shadows – so staging the final battle in broad daylight does feel a little bit awkward, if only because the sequences inside the ship work relatively better.

It’s a shame, because it’s a genuinely exciting premise. I mean, who doesn’t look at that title and get excited? It’s just a shame that it’s so little of the former and so much of the latter.

6 Responses

  1. Hmm, that’s a shame. I always respect the fusion of genres when done well. A western alien invasion movie could have been interesting if done well.

    • Yep. I was really looking forward to it. It’s just a really standard alien invasion film with a different desktop theme. It’d be a decent Spielberg homage if we hadn’t had the best Spielberg homage in decades only a little while ago.

  2. I’m one of the few who really enjoyed “C&A”… I’ll probably have to make a revision of my overly generous score for the sake of maintaining an accurate “Big List.” As much as I respect it as big B-movie fare, I can’t take seeing it sit just below “The Adventures of Robin Hood” in my database.

    • I don’t know. Part of me thinks it was just really bad timing on the part of the film. Alien invasions have been done to death lately, so I think a lot of people were watching for the “Cowboy” part of it. Favreau actually did a really decent introduction for the film festival, and I felt kinda bad – the guy clearly put a lot into it, and was having a lot of fun talking about Spielberg and practical effects and stuff, and I feel bad that it didn’t really come together as well as I (and he) hoped it might.

      If it had been released even before Super 8, I reckon the film would have done better critically and commercially.

  3. The film is just no fun, and doesn’t deliver on the chessy promise of Bond and Indy in cowboy hats fighting aliens. Distinctly average.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: