Monday, August 1, 2011

Cowboys & Aliens - Theatrical Review


Release Date: July 29, 2011

Alien invasion movies have hit a brick wall it seems. We can only be sucked up into or blown up by giant spaceships for so long until we will just give in and just let the dam critters take our planet. So what could anyone possibly do to try and inject some new life into the genre? Well, have the invasion take place during the wild west of course!

Review Vital Stats:
Theater: AMC 12 Downtown Disney
Time: 8:20 pm July 29, 2011
Projector Type: Digital 2D

Loves: Jon Favreau, Harrison Ford
Likes: Daniel Craig, Olivia Wilde, westerns, aliens
Neutral: The alien invasion formula, western cliches
Hates: When a promising idea is wasted
Third: Movie Steven Spielberg produced this summer

Earlier this year we saw another film try to rejuvenate the fledgling alien invasion formula by trying to turn it into an actual war film. While it met with limited success on more than one count it still remained a faithful entry into the overcrowded genre. When I first heard that the project that took director Jon Favreau away from the Iron Man series was something called Cowboys & Aliens I, like many people unfamiliar with the source material, thought it sounded kind of silly. I understood what they were going for, a sort of play on the age old pairing of cowboys versus Indians but with little green men in place of the cowboy's greatest nemesis.  I didn't know how much I really wanted something like that though. I mean I like alien movies and I like westerns but it would have to be something very unique for me to put aside my growing weariness for both genres beyond just mixing the two together. I had faith though, Favreau proved himself when he turned the sequel to Jumanji into a honest to goodness great movie with Zathura so I gave him the benefit of the doubt. However it seems that his downward slope is still in effect (I didn't care too much for Iron Man 2) and while he has made a solid movie here, he has somehow made one that just isn't very much fun.

The first image we see is a man (Daniel Craig) waking up in the desert lost, confused, disoriented, wounded and wearing some sort of metal contraption on his left wrist. We, like him, don't know what happened and like him we want to know just what it was exactly that got him there. Not to long after he enters the town of Absolution do we learn he is a wanted outlaw by the name of Jake Lonergan. He, as are we, is quickly introduced to the local townsfolk such as the mysterious Ella (Olivia Wilde) who seems to more about him that he does, the local cattle king's son Percy (Paul Dano) who likes to torture the local doctor/barkeep Doc (Sam Rockwell) by shooting up his saloon and then we have the cattle king himself Woodrow Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford) who wants to "talk" to Jake about a quantity of gold that he deprived him of a while back. Their dealings are put on hold however when their town is suddenly attacked by aliens in these flying machines that look like insects who abduct a large number of the towns people within minutes. After Jake takes one of their flying machines down with the mysterious weapon attached to his wrist everyone puts aside their differences and decides to work together to bring back their people and hopefully discover who or what these aliens are.

Daniel Craig beats the odds and becomes one of the best western anti-heroes in quite some time.

I will admit to a couple things up front here. I really do like westerns, I like the passiveness to them,  the overall aesthetics of the time period and the beauty of the rugged landscapes. There is just something so raw and untamed about that era that has always won me over. I enjoy the more thoughtful and realistic takes such as Unforgiven and the more outright action oriented fare such as Tombstone so it doesn't take a whole lot to get me invested into that world. I even found the third Back to the Future movie to be rather entertaining. The other thing is how much I have come to both loath and love alien invasion films over the years. When done right they can be a good amount of escapist fun but the tone of those films usually dictates their level of success as does the aliens themselves in both design and originality. I have seen so many great ideas from that genre be undermined by lackluster execution (Skyline) and others that were hurt by bland lifeless creatures that lacked any significant personality to them (Independence Day).

Now I don't think it is too much to ask for with a movie called Cowboys & Aliens to expect something a little different, something that would deliver an experience not part of the mold. To be honest though I don't know what it was exactly that I was expecting from the film other than to be entertained. I wasn't looking for it to reinvent the wheel for either genre it was dealing with, I just wanted something that lived up to the potential from such a goof ball concept as cowboys fighting aliens. While there are most certainly cowboys in this and some aliens and they do fight each other from time to time none of it ever felt exciting at any given moment. There were a number of scenes where I actually found myself thinking that I should be excited right now...but I wasn't. That was how I felt for most of the film, like I was being shown things that were supposed to wow me and I just kind of shrugged it all off as simply par for the course.

Only when that weapon is out does anything resembling cool actually happen.

To be clear, I didn't dislike the movie. I genuinely found most of the scenes at the beginning to be rather intriguing. The slow build up and mysteries surrounding Jake were handled perfectly and got me geared up for the eventual payoff when we would see some cowboys fighting some aliens. I was totally on board with Jake, his character was the type of western icon that made me fall in love with that genre in the first place. You don't know if he is bad or good or even what he wants but you do know he isn't to be messed with or else people are gonna get hurt. And Daniel Craig embodies that character type perfectly giving the audience just the right amount of skepticism towards him and his actions while also making us root for him as he takes down the local town bully. He was the one part of the entire film I thought worked from beginning to end, it was the film that surrounded him that let me down.

What the film boils down to is a strange mixture of a road trip and a monster hunting movie but taking place during the wild west with a group of distinctive yet cliche personalities. It really did feel like the filmmakers threw in every type of western character you could think of from the preacher, the gunshy doctor, the lonely kid looking for a father figure, the Indian tracker, the rough and tough cattle king that learns a few lessons during their journey and of course the mysterious outlaw. About the only character in the whole movie that seems out of place is Ella who feels out of place for reasons beyond her stunning beauty. But even she is slightly bland which caught me off guard because I found Olivia Wilde's performance in last years Tron: Legacy to be one of the few highlights of that film.

Olivia Wilde is much more talented than this movie gives her credit for.

The real question here though is why didn't any of this work for me. It is hard to really put your finger on just one issue because there were just so many little things that didn't feel right.  Seeing aliens fly over head and rain down fire upon the helpless cowboys should have been visually stimulating or at the very least interesting. But those moments are fleeting with only a handful of scenes that have the cowboys fighting or even facing off against the aliens, until the finale that is. It felt like there was about 70% cowboys and maybe 30% aliens and while that isn't necessarily a bad thing it does however make the whole affair seem to drag on longer than it should. Westerns are a slow burn that often don't involve very much in the way of excitement (they are usually character studies) and unfortunately despite having the strange addition of aliens it still felt more like a western than anything else which is a good thing or a bad thing depending on your outlook for the genre.

To put it bluntly though the film just lacked any sort of spark to it. There was not one scene that thrilled me but at the same time I wasn't bored by it. Perhaps it was my love for westerns that kept me invested in what was happening but I never once found myself excited, more so just along for the ride so to speak. I think much of the blame for this has to be leveled at the aliens themselves. Their design isn't anything too special and they seemed pretty single minded as well with zero personality to them. Their reason for being on our planet will seem overly familiar to fans of the alien invasion genre and it isn't remotely captivating enough to warrant any sort of interest. When I found out what it was they were on Earth for I literally just thought to myself, "Oh, OK. I guess that makes sense".

Harrison Ford tries his best to not look like Indiana Jones.

As I have already mentioned they have very little screen time as well. There is the opening attack on the town (which is at night and we don't really see them), another small skirmish inside an upside down boat in the middle of the desert (which is never properly explained why or how it got there), a very quick attack during the day time (which only served the purpose of letting our heroes get away from some thugs) and the finale which was admittedly pretty cool...sort of. You see, watching cowboys use six shooters and rifles against aliens seems pretty cool in concept but in execution it is lacking. The only time the action seemed to pick up is whenever Jake would activate his wrist gun but even that got old after a while. There are some other elements thrown in to the mix later that ad some variety but the payoff I was looking for was no where to be found. Maybe I was asking too much of it given the confines of its premise but it just felt like there was a lot of untapped potential to be mined from such a novel concept. Can you imagine how cool it would have been if more of the cowboys got a hold of some of that alien weaponry?

One of my nitpicks I level at just about every movie I see, but don't hold them to, is if there are any characters that I can get invested in. Jake is a great lead character and like I said earlier is one of the best parts of the movie but I wish I could say the same thing for the other characters. Ella as mentioned was pretty bland, Harrison Ford as Woodrow Dolarhyde was good but not fantastic and had a character arc that was ruined by the incredibly awkward performance from Adam Beach as Nat. Sam Rockwell is usually a very dependable actor but he was given less than nothing to work with here with his only character trait being that he needs to learn how to shoot a gun, Clancy Brown is one of the greatest character actors out there but his preacher was taken from us way too early. The only standout amongst this group of actors was Noah Ringer as the young boy Emmett and the only reason he stood out to me was because due to his more than adequate performance here I now have proof that M. Night Shyamalan really does make actors bad (he played Aang in last years cinematic abortion The Last Airbender).

This isn't nearly as exciting as it should have been.

So, the cowboys are mostly one note, the aliens lack any sort of personality, the action is fairly tame and unless you are a fan of westerns you will most likely find the movie to be fairly uneventful with very few exciting moments. What does all that ad up to? Well, it equates to the fact that this just isn't a very entertaining movie, at least not in the respect of getting your blood pumping. It is a perfectly adequate movie and a well made one. The production values are second to none and it has a very capable and charismatic cast that wasn't given much to do unfortunately. I find myself conflicted on just where I stand with it concerning whether or not I actually liked it though.

I would have to say that if you are a fan of either westerns or alien invasion movies and find the premise of mixing to two genres enticing then you should give it a shot. At the very least you will come away from the experience mildly entertained by just how bizarre the concept was but quite possibly confused on what it was missing that would have made it more than just an interesting idea. If you like westerns solely then you will probably come away from the movie more satisfied than most but if you find yourself more of an aliens type of person you will most likely feel very underwhelmed or possibly even bored by the time it is all over. This was a movie that should have been a ton of fun and with such a goofy concept, a great cast and director on board it is a crime that it turned out so very blah. I cannot recommend that you see it in the theater but I can recommend to the curious that when it becomes available you...




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