Saturday, August 20, 2011

Review: Cowboys and Aliens is Wild(west)ly Forgettable!

I like John Favreau, Daniel Craig, Olivia Wilde, Sam Rockwell and I goddamn love a curmudgeonly Harrison "Indiana Solo" Ford! I also quite like aliens and can tolerate cowboys, so when you mix all this stuff up and hurl it at the big screen, I would expect to leave the cinema both full and satisfied. So why, after seeing the much anticipated Cowboys and Aliens am I left underwhelmed and wanting much, much more?

In short, it's a bland, predictable film that seems reluctant, or unable, to truly capitalize on its outlandish premise. You would expect it to be an insane genre-bending thrill-ride filled with robust characters and escalating money shots but, after a promising start, it rapidly loses speed and ambition.

Want to know all the ugly details? Join me after the jump and we'll give these cowboys and aliens what for! (Spoilers ahoy!)

So what it's all about?
Daniel Craig is a convincingly badass, mostly silent, don't-fuck-with-me cowboy who awakens in the middle of the desert with no memory and an alien bracelet locked on his wrist. Taking refuge in a small town, he soon finds himself at the mercy of Harrison Ford's grumpy and sadistic Colonel Dolarhyde but all plans and punishments are put on hold when a fleet of alien ships blow up half the street and abduct many of the townsfolk (including Ford's son). With a wide-eyed and mysteriously interfering Olivia Wilde in tow, the posse set out to attack the aliens and their base and rescue the townsfolk. They do exactly that and that's pretty much the entire, linear, cliche-ridden movie.

Yep. Just standing in the desert. For an hour or so.
The best part of the film is Craig whose sudden violent - yet expressionless - outbursts steal more than a few scenes. He's a rugged, virile, Wolverine of a man who could dispatch a T-Rex with his bare hands, thereby making the rest of the cast redundant. The issue of course is that, despite how kick-ass his character is, he barely talks or relates to the other characters so there is little room for play or chemistry. You certainly won't see much of the loose, improvisational humour that was present in Favreau's Iron Man. Craig is stoic and determined and hoping to get from A to B as quickly as possible.

Contrast with Ford who is an uber-curmudgeon who wildly swings from teeth-gritted contempt to noble, fatherly compassion. And it's an odd shift because you're never really sure exactly what the character is supposed to be. He's set up in a cruel reveal as the "villain" and then suddenly becomes the hard man who is softening into his role as a father. Except he has three different characters that he ends up arbitrarily playing "father" to: his own deadbeat son, a young boy, and his Indian companion. Ford gets the most emotion but it feels shoe-horned in - like it was contractually obligated rather than driven by the story. I'm conflicted because I love watching Harrison Ford, but for me he rarely felt completely comfortable. I think he's at his best when his character finally looses up and he breaks into his trademarked crooked smile that punches my big red nostalgia button.

And the rest of the cast are really underused. Sam Rockwell is always brilliant but somewhat reigned in here. He's the closest we come to comic relief but he has no fellow light-hearted characters to riff against. And his wife has been abducted and the film never gives him the time or opportunity to adequately grieve. He's stifled. And Olivia Wilde's character is adrift and is given an unlikely mid-way twist that is told, not shown, and is probably the most frustrating and unbelievable element of the movie.

Save your breath, lady. He doesn't have any dialogue.
The aliens? They're OK design-wise, but don't expect an escalating series of set-pieces, technology, or creatures. Even the low budget District 9 managed to continually up the ante (remember that fantastic mech towards the climax?) but Cowboys and Aliens is depressingly small in scale - there's one type of ship, one type of alien, and that's pretty much it. There's shooting, there's punching, there's explosions, but no trickery, twists or ingenious solutions. The movie is so straightforward (raid the base, fight the aliens, leave before it blows up) that it honestly leaves me bewildered...

John Favreau is better and smarter that this, right? So is producer Steven Spielberg. It's hard to believe that they were happy with this script, or happy with what they shot when it's mostly so restrained and bland. The script is certainly very light, but then the direction is pedestrian as well. I can't think of a single memorable or iconic shot that really jumped out at me (compared to my recent viewing of Sucker Punch where memorable shots were happening every couple of minutes).  So what went wrong? Was it the pressure of working with Harrison Ford?

Because the movie tries to be two different things but it never fully commits to either. It's not an audacious, balls-to-the-wall B movie sci-fi adventure, but it's not really a convincing father and son drama either. It delivers on its title so economically and superficially when it really should have gotten it drunk and bent it over a barrel.

Here are five genre mash-ups I would have rather have seen.

1. Cavemen and Harpies.
2. Conquistadors and Chupacabras.
3. French Impressionists and Muppets.
4. Milkmen and Unicorns.
5. Jesus' Disciples and Godzillas.

Wait for the DVD.

I give Cowboys and Aliens 2 chin-scars out of a possible 5.


  1. I deepy concur. Though ladies may want to watch for the continual, distractingly fascinating shots of Daniel Craigs arse. Someone really needed to have a word with wardrobe.

  2. Interesting, I enjoyed the movie, but it thats because I was expecting about as much as you concluded. Was I looking for something insanely huge and explosive? No, I was looking for a decent western with Aliens in it. It hit home on all the typical western themes of redemption, alienation, and personal justice.

    It wasn't great by any means, and as soon as you find out who Olivia Wilde is it goes massively downhill, but I'd say see it at the theater and skip the DVD, but don't pay full price for it as its the type of film that does well on a big screen. Just not one that is full of other people seeing you there to watch it.