Cowboys & Aliens (2011)
Unlike many, I wasn’t anticipating this film for a long time. It was only when I saw the trailer before Transformers: Dark of the Moon that I became interested and excited for it. It seemed like a very original film in style and concept populated by a fine cast, and helmed by a proven director in Jon Favreau (Iron Man). The film does have merit with some fine performances and entertainment value. However, I was disappointed that the concept was not realized to its fullest extent.
In 1873, Arizona Territory, a mysterious loner (Daniel Craig) wakes up in the middle of the desert with no memory of who he is, where he came from, or how the high tech device got latched onto his forearm. After dispatching of some ill meaning folk, he proceeds to the small town of Absolution where is tended to by a local preacher, but soon makes trouble for the unruly Percy Dolarhyde (Paul Dano). Things go further awry when the local law enforcement recognize him as Jake Lonergan, a wanted criminal. Percy’s rich cattleman father, Woodrow Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford), comes to collect his son, and Jake for stealing his gold. However, the stand-off is cut short when the town is mysteriously attacked by alien flying crafts. The device on Lonergan’s forearm starts beeping and flashing. The ships abduct various townspeople, but not before the device helps Lonergan blast one out of the sky. This sets Dolarhyde, Lonergan, and several other townsfolk on a mission to recover their lost loved ones. Taking a particular interest in Jake is Ella (Olivia Wilde), who has some secrets of her own that she needs Lonergan’s help in resolving. They all set out on this adventure of danger together for different reasons, but towards the very same goal.
The positives of this film start with Daniel Craig. He has great presence like the western anti-heroes of old who doesn’t need to speak much to impact a scene. Lonergan is a man of action, and those actions speak quite clearly for him. Of course, he is also intelligent and cunning, but not without a dash of charm and compassion. Craig is a perfect lead handling all that befalls his character with perfect reactions, and acting like a hero you can take stock in. Another highlight is Clancy Brown appearing as Meacham, the town’s preacher. The character has a very refreshing philosophy on his religion. Things such as you have to earn God’s presence. You have to make the effort to do good deeds, to improve yourself before he’ll grace you with good fortune. Meacham seems to believe God is more of a guiding force that helps you along the journey instead of laying it out for you to walk without question.
Harrison Ford stars here as a former Colonel named Dolarhyde who pretty much runs things around these parts. Ford’s had an amazing career playing so many versatile roles, but I have not seen him in anything much since The Fugitive. Here, Ford is crusty, hardened, and mean-spirited. To a certain point, that works for the character, but Ford barely deviates from that characterization to show us what the script is trying to do with the ex-Colonel. In concept, Dolarhyde is meant to win over an audience by showing that he’s not as bad of a man as we think, it’s just history and circumstances that have jaded him. That’s the intention, but Ford’s performance doesn’t show that depth. He speaks the words, but there’s no variation of emotion when he does to convey a sense of a dimensional character. He just exists in the film. Ford handles the action of the piece well with guns, horses, and so forth.
Olivia Wilde is about what you expect from her. It’s no breakout performance, and it might not be everything that it should be. However, it’s not bad. Things in the film tend to range from mediocre to great. Of course, too much languishes on the lower end of that spectrum. Wilde services the role decently enough making for an all right female lead, but next to Craig, she falters. His is such a strong character and performance that she doesn’t stand out as well as him. The character has a nice arc, and secrets of her own to reveal. However, like much in this film, it’s played too safe.
The supporting cast is a little mixed. Walton Goggins is his always entertaining and memorable self as a member of Lonergan’s former band of thieves. Paul Dano is very entertaining and a nice fit for the immature, unruly, and troublemaking Percy Dolarhyde. He’s mostly a comic foil to contrast Craig’s harder edged character in their few scenes together, and plays it perfectly. However, Adam Beach comes off far too flatly. It’s clear that, by the end, we’re supposed to have some emotional resonance with the character, but there’s nothing within Beach’s performance to grasp onto. He seems like a plain supporting cast member. Attempts are made throughout the film to have him bond with Ford’s Dolarhyde character, but as I said, Ford doesn’t give much to help his character be anything of anything. Sam Rockwell portrays the local bartender who has tried to make a new beginning for him and his wife here, but faces trouble every step of the way. He’s a man facing circumstances he doesn’t have the courage or confidence to overcome. To me, he seemed like the guy that gets dragged along on the journey even though he has nothing to contribute. So, they slap some clichéd story arc on him of a man that’s never handled a weapon, never fired a gun, and finally comes through at the end to save someone’s life by firing a shot. It’s terribly by the numbers.
As I said, the premise and concepts of Cowboys & Aliens should’ve been pushed further for a more fantastical experience, but that never happens. I just felt like everything was held back. That they had a fertile idea here that never went beyond the basics of cowboys clashing with aliens. While meshing western and science fiction genres is not a new thing, I have not seen this particular premise played out before. The closest would be Joss Whedon’s Firefly, which married the two concepts well in a futuristic setting. It meshed the ideals and themes of a western into a futuristic science fiction setting, and maybe that’s where the strength of the idea lies. Aliens abducting people from old west towns seemed cool at the beginning of the film, but the premise falters a little when you find out why the aliens are even here at all. It was ridiculous to me that all they wanted was to mine for one natural resource because it’s valuable to them. It’s not like it’s a fuel they need to power their machines, or a precious resource they need to sustain their species. They just want it because it has monetary value. That comes off as a very weak idea that someone thought up in two seconds, and never decided to evolve further. The aliens create their own problems by coming out and abducting people. Had they just stayed hidden in the mountains, no one would have ever known they were around. Had they been discovered, and were almost fighting back in defense of themselves, that would be something. Unfortunately, the aliens just come off as foolish through and through. Their motives and methods really have no rationale or logic behind them. Humans posed no threat to them until they unnecessarily revealed their presence, and started abducting them for the sole purpose of the learning the weaknesses of a enemy that knew nothing of their existence.
I’m also rather tired of the personality deprived alien concept. Predator got it right by making the alien silent, but also having it demonstrate a great deal of character and personality. That is birthed mainly from having the right person inside the suit along with someone brilliant like Stan Winston behind the design of it. CGI has robbed us of a performer’s nuanced quality when it comes to creatures like this. One comes off no different than another, and that is just from a lack of creativity. They are just creatures designed to fill up the plot, and serve as a physical enemy to combat.
The visual effects are about mid-grade. They are generally okay, but they won’t win any awards. They service the story, and that’s about it. They are better in some instances than others, depending on the setting and what the effect actually is, but yeah, there’s not much to really say about them all. They definitely could be far better to improve the overall quality of the film, but that’s hardly the only shortcoming of this movie.
Another thing that I felt kept the film from reaching its full potential is a lack of atmosphere with the visuals. The sound design and score are really solid. I love the meshing of musical styles in the score, and I think that achieved more than the film itself did in combining western and sci-fi themes. However, with the marketing campaign as it was, showcasing a lot of colorful, shadowy, and moody visuals, I had hoped there would be more of it than we got. Those such scenes are handled excellently. They are lit and shot in a very effective way as something conceptually evocative of Ridley Scott’s Alien. However, much of the film unfolds in broad daylight scenes which offer no stylized vibe to them. Yes, it suits the western side of things fine, but again, if this is a meshing of genres, the lines should be blurred between them. It should be that the two styles mix to create something unique and consistent instead of switching from one look and tone to another as it shifts from the western plot elements to science fiction ones. The film is rarely ever both a western and a science fiction film. It’s either a western, or it’s a science fiction movie. It doesn’t really deliver on the potential of the premise by meshing them both together in smart, clever ways. Generally, this is a film where style and substance should have reigned in abundance, and they skimped on both.
Favreau does handle the action scenes very well. They are compelling sequences filled with suspense, tension, and excitement. The initial nighttime abduction scene is stellar all around with the sharp visuals, beautiful colors, and exciting tone. Later, when everyone is hiding in a ravaged and upside down river boat, and a lone alien comes stalking, all is handled with style and horror movie level tension. Favreau’s skill in this matter does help build up the intimidation level with the aliens. I only wish they did make them more than just monsters to fight.
Again, Cowboys & Aliens has its bright points with Craig in the lead role, and a few of the supporting roles. Now, the movie doesn’t become outright bad. It’s just underdeveloped by the filmmakers, or underplayed by certain actors. What felt like it should have been a rather memorable and remarkable genre-bending film really never takes off at any point. Nothing is delivered on to its fullest extent, and the ending feels a little short on emotional impact for the characters. It is an enjoyable and generally entertaining film that is worth some of your time, but expectations need to be wrangled back before watching it.