17 August 2011

Movie Review: Cowboys & Aliens


D+

Cowboys and Aliens
2011, 118mins, 12
Director: Jon Favreau
Writer (s): Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman, Damon Lindelof, Mark Fergus, Hawk Ostby
Cast includes: Daniel Craig, Harrison Ford, Olivia Wilde, Sam Rockwell, Clancy Brown, Noah Ringer
UK Release Date: 17th August 2011

After two decent “Iron Man” adventures, director Jon Favreau has opted to maintain his status as a blockbuster filmmaker with “Cowboys & Aliens”. Loosely adapted from a comic book of the same name, “Cowboys & Aliens” appears on paper to be a geek’s wet dream, combining both western and sci-fi elements with a host of recognizable names peppering the cast list. On paper that is. In practice the film is actually a slog, an ugly amalgamation of poor writing and uninspired action. The performers are largely game, but Favreau displays miniscule imagination, grappling hopelessly with a screenplay that never catches fire.

Proceedings open with Jake Lonergan (Daniel Craig) awakening in the middle of nowhere, his memory wiped and with a futuristic device strapped upon his wrist. Making his way into town, Lonergan quickly runs afoul of the law and Colonel Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford), his past criminal exploits catching up with him when he is identified as a thief, thug and potential murderer. In the midst of this fracas, a fleet of aggressive alien spacecraft ambush the town and make off with some of its inhabitants, leaving Dolarhyde with no choice but to utilize Jake’s reputation and mysterious mechanical attachment to hunt the nasty newcomers. Together the two men lead a posse comprised of weary bartender Doc (Sam Rockwell), anxious youngster Emmett (Noah Ringer), warmhearted preacher Meacham (Clancy Brown) and tightlipped Ella (Olivia Wilde), a woman with a notable interest in Jake. It quickly becomes clear that the rescue mission will be a dangerous one, as the extraterrestrial menace showcase stronger weaponry and a merciless attitude.

Despite such a fertile premise and a five strong team of writers, “Cowboys & Aliens” is totally devoid of new ideas. Instead of using this bizarre clash to reinvent the respective genres, the screenplay is simply content to mash together mediocre clich├ęs, resulting in tepid sequences that we’ve seen multiple times before. The film isn’t overly action heavy to begin with, but the lack of innovation evidenced is starling, Favreau guiding us through a slew of very familiar set-pieces. The alien spacecraft attacks are vapid and unmemorable; amounting to joyless CGI fuelled interludes that fail to ratchet up the tension. When the creatures themselves appear toward the film’s climax, they’re an appropriately vicious brood, but Favreau largely wastes them, using a selection of faceless digital jets as antagonists during the opening two acts. The heated interactions between the humans are a little more involving, but rarely extend further than your usual western shootouts and brawls. Formula rules firmly in “Cowboys & Aliens”.

Characterization clearly wasn’t a priority during the creative process, the personalities in “Cowboys & Aliens” nothing more than stereotypes. Craig is gruff and reasonably badass, which is cool... for about ten minutes. After an opening bout of fisticuffs, the film never really does anything engaging with Jake, instead leaving Craig to scowl and murmur his way through the story. The usually dependable British actor looks like he’s here for the money, a visibly bored expression adorning his face for the majority of the film’s runtime. Attempts at morphing Jake into a three-dimensional antihero are predictable and ineffective. You can shove all the tragedy flavoured flashbacks you want down an audiences throat – but if they don’t care about the character – then it’s all for nothing. Harrison Ford is at least fun to watch, the seasoned genre star underlining his turn with some gruff swagger. Olivia Wilde, who was very good in last year’s “TRON: Legacy”, is left with the most hopeless character of all. For a large portion of “Cowboys & Aliens” she’s simply a thinly developed figure of intrigue, and by the time the writers do something fresh with the beautiful actress it’s too late. The revelation surrounding Ella is both bogus and lazy, whilst her rushed romantic subplot with Craig is detonated thanks to a lack of palpable chemistry between the thespians.

“Cowboys & Aliens” trundles along for a bloated 118 minutes, packing in a variety of unnecessary subplots. Given that the central batch of characters are so dramatically malnourished, it’s weird to observe the writing staff attempt to gift numerous supporting players limp narrative lifelines, namely the folks portrayed by Rockwell and Ringer. Neither actor does overtly bad work (Ringer is perhaps a little stilted in a few scenes, but it’s forgivable), but the arcs ascribed to them are banal and unfocused. “Cowboys & Aliens” really is a mess, albeit a well photographed one. The cinematography by Matthew Libatique is excellent, capturing the dry harshness of the west in stylish detail. This sheen of visual panache is definitely one of the movie’s stronger attributes, without it things would be considerably more offensive.

The producers on the project include Steven Spielberg amongst their ranks; I can only assume he was too busy working on his future directorial output and shepherding the superior “Super 8” to bestow any substantial attention upon “Cowboys & Aliens”. Maybe if he had the movie wouldn’t be such a mundane disappointment, albeit given that the majority of the production’s problems stem from and lame script, even the contributions of Spielberg mightn’t have been enough. Still, speculation and hypothetical musings are one thing, reality is quite another. The fact of the matter is “Cowboys & Aliens” isn’t worth any of your film-going coin.

A Review by Daniel Kelly, 2011

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