19 August 2011


It should be indicative of the talent involved, when the on-screen pairing of James Bond and Henry Jones Jr, the first since 1989's Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, is the least mentionable part about a film. But unfortunately, even with the casting of Daniel Craig, Harrison Ford, Sam Rockwell and Olivia Wilde, Steven Spielberg's role as an executive producer, and Jon Favreau in the director's chair, there's little of interest to say about Cowboys & Aliens, full-stop.

Let's keep things in perspective though- it's not nearly as bad as you've heard. It has a pretty interesting spin on the Western hero archetype of the man with no name, whose backstory is a mystery. In amongst sci-fi trappings, Jake Lonergan's history is unknown even to himself. But he's a wanted man, so when he shows up in the small town of Absolution with a strange weapon strapped to his wrist, he's soon arrested by the imperious Colonel Dolarhyde. But then alien invaders show up, and unlikely allies must band together to protect the town, and the planet.

All of which sounds a lot more exciting and fun than it actually turns out. This film has been in turnaround since 1997- shortly after being picked up by studios, 1999's Wild Wild West happened. And now it's finally been released, in 2011, it comes after last year's Jonah Hex. The final product owes more to the front cover of the graphic novel it's based on, than it does to the actual content. It reeks of a project that has been developed to death. For starters, the film has five credited screenwriters, with Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, two blockbuster scribes who are hit and miss at the best of times, amongst them.

And so many of Cowboys & Aliens' principal flaws come from a once novel premise being entirely overcooked, by talented people who seem to have worked together without ever really communicating. I like to think of Steven Spielberg as Hollywood's Dumbledore, insofar as remembering that quote from the books, in which the Hogwarts headmaster says "I make mistakes like the next man. In fact, being--forgive me--rather cleverer than most men, my mistakes tend to be correspondingly huger." See also: making a fourth Indiana Jones movie, and executive producing Transformers.

But as I said about Pixar and Cars 2, it's impossible to make a film that is entirely worthless with such great calibre behind it, and Cowboys & Aliens falls a long way from being mere crap. Daniel Craig resembles leading men of the 1970s, like Steve McQueen and Paul Newman, at the best of times, and there's a great thrill in seeing his graduation into a full-on movie star culminate with a Western. Similarly, it's great to see Harrison Ford get a role like Dolarhyde. He's not the matinee hero, and nor is he the bereaved or threatened family man- Dolarhyde is a character who refers to both while still giving him his most meaty role in years.

Much has been made of how Sam Rockwell is wasted in a supporting role, but I'm personally always happy to see my favourite actor in a film. And true to form, he even sneaks in a little dance, so it was definitely worth him turning up. Paul Dano also has some nice stuff as Dolarhyde's no-good drunkard son. Although many of the supporting characters are cut straight out of the Big Book of Western Archetypes, they're necessary for the genre flavour of the film. Olivia Wilde sticks out like a sore thumb in this respect, to the point where certain revelations about her character are only remarkably unremarkable.

Another of the film's screenwriters is Damon Lindelof, best known for his work on Lost, so there's a recognisable tendency towards plot twists, which have to be bleeding obvious way before they're revealed in order to fit amongst everything else that's going on. Mixed with Orci and Kurtzman, whose skills lie in penning bombastic blockbuster setpieces, and Iron Man screenwriters Mark Fergus and Hawk Ostby, it's like all of these five writers forgot to write much for the aliens to do. The film has the Western elements down pat, but that only tips the balance further.

The aliens are not badly designed or rendered, and Favreau is a skilled action director who makes their battle scenes count, but they don't really have any signature moments. In a year full of alien invasion films, these invaders have no real character. Add that to the fact that their motives for invasion are borrowed from Battlefield Earth, and there's a real deficiency there. For their part, all of the technical aspects are as grand and authentic as you would hope for, but none of it is really, truly exciting.

Cowboys & Aliens is the proverbial spoilt broth, and unfortunately, the plot point in which a character has to "stop thinking" altogether in order to continue is an apt summary of watching the film itself. Action sequences and emotional beats, with Harrison Ford's character in particular, are well realised, but they seldom have a real impact. It's such a busy film, that has so much flavour and yet lacks a real personality. I can't help but feel a little disappointed, but it's still comfortably better than some of the year's other more bland and generic alien actioners.

Cowboys & Aliens is now showing in cinemas nationwide.

That's my review done, but here's a post-script that's been troubling me this week. Disney has just cancelled Gore Verbinski's version of The Lone Ranger- officially, because its budget was over $250 million, but speculatively, because this film flopped at the box office. Putting aside the fact that The Lone Ranger is obviously grossly over-budgeted for a Western, it's important to state that the bad response to films like Wild Wild West, Jonah Hex and, sadly, Cowboys & Aliens aren't indicative of the audience being sick of the genre. Earlier this year, Verbinski made Rango, which was a fucking awesome Western. They don't have to have huge budgets or poorly embedded gimmicks- let's have some more quality Westerns in cinemas, please.

If you've seen Cowboys & Aliens, why not share your comments below?

I'm Mark the mad prophet, and until next time, don't watch anything I wouldn't watch.

No comments: