The dual-review film criticism site: first a spoiler-free review, then an in-depth Alternate Take.
Cowboys & Aliens

Reviewed by Pete Falconer.

Director Jon Favreau
Length 118 mins
Certificate 12A / PG-13
Rating ******----
Filmmaking: 3  Personal enjoyment: 3

Photo from the article Trailer.

Cowboys and Aliens is a gleefully declarative title. Like Snakes on a Plane (2006), it seems designed to assert that this is a film that contains things - exciting things, in unexpected combinations. The attitude that this implies is fairly representative of the film as a whole. Cowboys and Aliens treats its subject matter with energy and enthusiasm, but is mainly content to move from incident to incident without much concern for development or depth.

The title also suggests how the narrative will proceed: we start with the cowboys, then the aliens come in later. Jake Lonergan (Daniel Craig) wakes up in the desert with a wound in his side, a futuristic-looking metal cuff on one wrist and no memory of who he is or where he came from. He makes his way into Absolution, a frontier town ruled over by the tyrannical cattle baron, Colonel Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford). When Absolution is threatened by extra-terrestrial marauders, Lonergan is dragged into the conflict.

Jon Favreau is familiar both as a square-shouldered character actor and as the director of the Iron Man films. The latter association gives us another clue about what to expect from the movie. Although the title flaunts its mixture of Western and Science Fiction elements, it is perhaps better characterised as a special effects driven action-adventure film that happens to feature cowboys and aliens. Its generic trappings are primarily a basis for excitement and spectacle.

In terms of its handling of genre, the movie’s aspirations to the all-things-to-all-men appeal of summer blockbusters can in fact be seen as an advantage. Cowboys and Aliens is more concerned with being eventful than it is with being serious or clever. It doesn’t have the time to do much more with its generic material than play it (admirably) straight. There isn’t enough in the film to make a satisfying Western or Science Fiction film on its own, but thrown in with everything else these elements feel not insubstantial, just pleasantly light. As a Western, this is particularly liberating - unlike most contemporary examples of the genre, the film is neither ponderous nor burdened with self-justification. A few of the touches from each genre are actually rather effective. On the Western side, classic shots of the lone rider against the landscape are offered to us with elegance and sincerity. There is also a brief funeral scene, where a few halting words are said over a rough grave in the wilderness, which makes a touching and resonant use of Western iconography. The Science Fiction side provides us with an eerie moment in the first alien attack, when Jake Lonergan’s mysterious cuff starts to emit an incongruous digital beeping.

Unfortunately, only some of the special effects are put to such compelling uses. For the most part, the film’s use of CGI suffers from the familiar afflictions: it is ugly, poorly integrated and unconvincingly textured. The digital post-production also sits quite heavily on the movie. The exaggerated colour intensity and contrast diminish the impact of the location shooting, making it feel much less like the characters are actually inhabiting a Western environment.

The casting of the film does a better job at reconciling slickness and authenticity. Daniel Craig looks like a convincing Western hero, and the camera picks out the rougher surfaces of his face and hands, building him into the mise-en-scène. Craig is supported by some great character actors, notably Keith Carradine, Clancy Brown and Sam Rockwell. All three are somewhat underused, but still bring presence and texture to the film. Harrison Ford, now in his late 60s, looks suitably grizzled, but isn’t given much to do beyond being ornery and mean. Set against this display of coarse, masculine features, there is Olivia Wilde in the role of Ella Swenson. Wilde is a contrasting figure, with her big eyes, high cheekbones and eerily symmetrical features. This makes her work well alongside Craig. Both actors look almost like caricatures - Wilde’s ethereal beauty is juxtaposed with Craig’s rugged jawline and prominently displayed muscles. These qualities go some way towards helping to connect the film’s glossy aesthetic to its more human elements.

Although Cowboys and Aliens offers a few points of esoteric interest, it does not leave us with a great deal to talk about. The film does not try too hard to be interesting or moving, or to sustain much of a compelling narrative. Its main concern is with being exciting. As such, it is an enjoyable and unpretentious movie, but not a particularly memorable one.

This review was published on September 04, 2011.

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