Review: Cowboys & Aliens (2011)

Cowboys & Aliens (2011)

Directed by: Jon Favreau | 118 minutes | action, war, western, fantasy, science fiction | Actors: Harrison Ford, Daniel Craig, Olivia Wilde, Sam Rockwell, Adam Beach, Paul Dano, Noah Ringer, Ana de la Reguera, Clancy Brown, Keith Carradine, David O’Hara, Walton Goggins, Abigail Spencer, Toby Huss, Raoul Trujillo Chris Browning, Buck Taylor, Brendan Wayne, Julio Cedillo, Matthew Taylor, Kenny Call, Cooper Taylor

Who doesn’t raise their eyebrows when reading a movie title like ‘Cowboys & Aliens’? It seems an unlikely and almost laughable combination. Still, once you think about it, it can make for an interesting mix of genres. The film comes a long way, but does not quite convincingly tie the science-fiction and the western setting together.

‘Cowboys & Aliens’ is very loosely based on Scott Michael Rosenberg’s 2006 graphic novel of the same name. It is not just on paper that aliens appear in countless stories. Movies about aliens landing on Earth have been around for decades – forgive the pun – too. From the heyday of the 1950s (aliens = communists!) to today: the aliens keep coming. And they never have good intentions, except for a single movie like ‘ET’. Now, like ET, when they are single-handed, say in ‘Predator’ or ‘The Thing’, or fly into our skies in massive numbers, as in ‘Independence Day’ or ‘Battle: Los Angeles’, the result is a lot of bloodshed, explosions, suspense and an eventual triumph over the bad guys from outer space.

The unlikely hero whose fortunes seem closely tied to the aliens is the bandit Jake Lonergan (Daniel Craig). Lonergan is a thief and mugger who and his gang robbed a shipment of gold from cattle baron Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford) and then scammed his gang by running off with the gold. Lonergan doesn’t know anything about it himself, he doesn’t remember his name, how he ended up in the desert and what that weird metal bracelet on his wrist does. Ford, in turn, is the dictatorial ruler of the town of Absolution, with a good-for-nothing son named Percy (Paul Dano). His word is law, despite the presence of the wayward Sheriff Taggert (Keith Carradine). But then the aliens invade and several inhabitants of the town are taken. Dolarhyde organizes a posse to follow the tracks of a wounded alien, and a mixed group sets out.

Craig and Ford show perfect performances and the characters are just right for them. A take on the man-without-name as Clint Eastwood made him famous, Craig’s man-without-memory is just as intriguing. Not only does he have the same aura of danger around him and he knows how to handle a revolver, his bracelet also contributes to the mystery. Ford gets the opportunity to sink his teeth into the role of the former Army Colonel, who still carries memories of the Civil War with him. He’s tough, sometimes mean, and although he lacks the charm of a Han Solo or Indiana Jones, there’s a sense that he’s not thoroughly bad, but has become that way because of the circumstances. Both Craig and Ford give their characters nuance and depth that you really wish the film was just about them and their conflict. Without aliens.

The supporting roles are all well cast, from the aforementioned Dano and Carradine, to Sam Rockwell as saloon owner “Doc”, Clancy Brown as pastor Meacham and Noah Ringer as Taggert’s grandson Emmett. Adam Beach has a beautiful supporting role as Ned Colorado, originally an Indian, who was raised by Dolarhyde. Between them hangs an unspoken father-son relationship, which is beautifully played out. In a small role, Walton Goggins also stands out as one of Lonergan’s former accomplices. Only Olivia Wilde stands out as the mysterious Ella, which is partly explained by the nature of her character. There is nothing wrong with her acting talent, but what also bothers her here is that the other characters have a background and a clearly defined role, as already portrayed in thousands of other Westerns. She floats, as it were, around the group who are looking for their missing loved ones or, like Lonergan, looking for answers.

It’s a shame that ‘Cowboys & Aliens’ doesn’t always provide those answers. Obviously not everything needs to be explained and unanswered questions increase the mystery. However, the scenario leaves too much open, too much unanswered and there are holes in the plot that you can drive a covered wagon through. Director Jon Favreau manages to cover it well for a while with skilful action scenes, a straightforward story with a good pace. From the opening he puts down a very realistic and quite raw western, which makes the contrast with the high-tech aliens all the greater and more unbelievable. Why exactly they are on Earth is explained, but by Ford himself labeled as ridiculous. As a viewer you can’t completely get rid of that feeling. Why, for example, has no one in 136 years sounded the alarm that aliens have landed on Earth? Most disturbing, though, is the inverted riverboat the group finds hundreds of miles from a major river? Where have the passengers gone? Why is the boat there now? Why did the aliens take the boat and put it there upside down? Is it because they thought that would be cool? Perhaps, in any case, such “finds” detract from the much stronger, personal story the characters carry and which would have been much more interesting to explore.

By setting the alien invasion in the rugged New Mexico Territory of 1875 (New Mexico only became a state in 1912), “Cowboys & Aliens” at least puts an original spin on the alien threat. Without modern technology, fighting becomes difficult and without a frame of reference for the inhabitants of the town of Absolution, the monsters are soon regarded as demons. Cinematographer Matthew Libatique (who received an Oscar nomination a year earlier for ‘Black Swan’) shoots brilliantly, making the most of the beautiful and sometimes bizarre landscape of New Mexico. The digital bag of tricks is certainly open, but Favreau doesn’t make the mistake of letting the special effects dominate. The film also has a number of pretty hard and bloody scenes, supplemented with a few nice scares that then let you sink back into your chair, grinning sheepishly.

And yet, despite all those good elements, the sum of the parts just doesn’t end up being a rock-solid film. It is a solid, expertly made film, but after a lot of construction and loose elements that work fine, the film in its entirety just doesn’t quite get off the ground. ‘Cowboys & Aliens’ is a film that you really want to like, but which is too unbelievably worked out to really convince. Without really disappointing you, ‘Cowboys & Aliens’ also falls short of your expectations.

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