REVIEW: Cowboys & Aliens (2011)

A gunslinger (Daniel Craig) with no memory of his past stumbles into the wild west town of Absolution. When aliens begin abducting the townsfolk, the gunslinger teams up with a mysterious young woman (Olivia Wilde) and a battle-hardened cattle rancher (Harrison Ford) to rescue the humans and defeat the alien menace.

In all honesty Cowboys & Aliens is a bit of a head-scratcher. A summer 2011 tentpole for DreamWorks Pictures, it boasts a top-notch popular cast, a talented visual effects-oriented director, and a significant production budget befitting its peak season release date. At the same time it suffers a gaping chasm between the implied whimsy of its title and its straight-faced screenplay, and a rather unlikely premise that puts it in creative difficulty from the get-go. There is no denying that it is competently made, but at the same time it is difficult to understand why the film was green-lit for production in the first place.

Despite the efforts of the cast and crew, the film’s two halves never quite gel together. Of the two it is the science fiction side that feels poorly served. The aliens themselves almost entirely lack personality, and their design seems relatively unmemorable and ordinary. They effectively act as generic monsters rather than intelligent antagonists. The film also suffers from a lack of an identifiable villain: there is one alien who receives a bit of attention, but remains too briefly seen to make the proper emotional impact.

That leaves the western half to pick up the slack, and to a large degree it does so very well. Both Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford seem ready-built for westerns; so much so, in fact, that one wishes they had abandoned the science fiction half of the film entirely and simply made a pure western instead. Craig in particular fits snugly into a sort of Steve McQueen-style cowboy role, with a cool, dry demeanour and a quick trigger finger. For Ford the role of tyrannical rancher Francis Dollarhyde is a god-send. While he is not the film’s villain he comes very close to it in his early scenes, and it is a shame he does not get to further develop his part in that direction. The supporting cast includes a number of strong character actors who build great characters out of modest material, including Walton Goggins, John Carradine and Sam Rockwell. Sadly Olivia Wilde is arguably served the weakest character of the lot: a maddeningly vague and ill-defined alien visitor in human form on a mission to destroy the alien spacecraft herself.

Visually the film looks tremendous, with director Jon Favreau favouring an anamorphic wide-screen take on the old west that harks back to classic Hollywood westerns. With the benefit of 21st century post-production and colour balancing, it makes for one hell of an attractive picture. One key drawback to the film is that it lacks iconic action: most great action or genre pictures manage to find at least one hugely memorable and distinctive action set piece that viewers have never seen before. Cowboys & Aliens never quite manages to find one, and coupled with a fairly weak meandering second act it leaves the film feeling a little empty and listless as it goes on One aspect in which the film does successfully blend western and science fiction elements is its score. Harry Gregson-Williams hits familiar motifs for both genres, and switches back and forth between them with great success.

There is much to like in Cowboys & Aliens, but the film never quite manages to work out what it is doing with itself. There is plenty of promise, but little of that promise is realised effectively on screen. In the end it made me wish Favreau, Ford and Craig had simply dumped the aliens altogether and done their best old-school western impersonation. That really could have been a hell of a thing.

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