Review: Cowboys & Aliens


Reviewer: Harry Davenport
Rated: 12A(UK)
Release Date: 17th August, 2011(UK)
DirectorJon Favreau
Cast:Daniel CraigHarrison Ford , Olivia WildeSam RockwellClancy Brown
I had high hopes for Cowboys and Aliens, being both a huge sci-fi fan and a Western aficionado. It also features three absolutely brilliant actors, Daniel Craig, Harrison Ford and Sam Rockwell – and yet somehow even with so much going for it Jon Favreau has made a below average film.

The film is set in 1873 and follows a posse who are on a mission to rescue their loved ones and other town folk who have been abducted by aliens. Our protagonist, Craig, wakes up having lost his memory and now sports a strange alien weapon on his wrist. Along with him ride Ford as a grizzled war veteran who is now a cattle rancher; Rockwell as the town barmen who isn’t used to firing a gun; Olivia Wilde as a tough woman looking for answers from Craig, and a host of other citizens from the town. While the premise is ridiculous it could be a lot of fun, but Cowboys and Aliens insists on being deadly serious. There are a few moments of humour, but generally this is a film with its tongue firmly in its normal position well away from its cheek.

Craig is given the tough stranger role, and is fine as he uses his cold blue eyes to intimidate,
but he is no Clint Eastwood or Lee Marvin. This isn’t his fault, it’s a problem with of the pacing. The opening has him surrounded by thugs whom he routinely puts in their place. It is quick and predictable. Compare this to Once Upon a Time in the West’s opening where Charles Bronson is in a similar predicament. The sequence is long, giving the thugs a real sense of danger, and by the time he takes quick action to deal with them we don’t question how tough or dangerous he is. As I’ve said, the pacing is off throughout the movie. The aliens are shown far too early, when what is needed is the Jaws or Jurassic Park technique of withholding a visual of the menace until quite a way into the film. It also doesn’t help that the aliens are unoriginal, unconvincing CGI beasts. They are more muscular versions of the prawns seen in the fantastic District 9. Their screams sound like Monster growl No.1 from a sound effect CD bought in at Poundland. They are neither frightening nor realistic.

Harrison Ford is fine but mostly snarls his way through the film, only occasionally showing just how brilliant he can be. Sam Rockwell, who has to be one of the greatest actors working today, is given a boring character and little to work with. Every now and then you see how charming and funny he is,
but he simply needs a better role to work with. Wilde plays her role of Alice with some style but early on when she acts tough her physical fragility makes it seem as though just one of the (many) loud noises in the film could break her in two; and her character becomes ridiculous as the film goes on.

The supporting cast is astonishing. Clancy Brown, who was brilliantly menacing in HBO’s Carnivale as a possessed priest, is misued, yet again playing a man of the cloth and given many meaningless lines about morality and faith. Paul Dano of Little Miss Sunshine and There Will Be Blood fame, and Keith Carridine (no stranger to Westerns, having been in a few including Deadwood, in which he was a superb Wild Bill Hickock) are given tiny parts, being abducted near the beginning.

The production values on the whole are good. The costumes and sets are authentic, and the Western locations are magnificent. The lighting is excellent but the camera work itself is bland. When one thinks back, to when westerns were popular, the works of Sergio Leone, Sam Peckinpah and John Ford come to mind, and their films utilised stunning and inventive uses of camera and editing. But here there is not one shot that stands out. Cinematographer Matthew Libatique has done some wonderful work in the past, especially with Darren Aronofsky in films such as Black Swan and The Fountain. So is he not being directed here?

Favreau said he was inspired by classic westerns by people like Leone and other films including Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid as well as classic science fiction but they haven’t seemed to rub off on him. He said he wouldn’t make the film 3-D because it wasn’t traditionally western but nothing about this film is. The film doesn’t work as a western or a science fiction film. It reminded me of the 1966 film Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter, which was equally bad, but at least seemed to have a sense of humour about itself. If you want to watch a good science fiction western watch Westworld, Serenity or even Back to the Future Part III.

Cowboys and Aliens doesn’t work. It’s a boring western film mixed with a shoddy science fiction adventure and its biggest crime is to misuse one of the best casts of the year. Disappointing. However, give thanks: there is at least now the chance of a sparkling porn rip off titled Cowboys on Aliens.

Rating: 2.5/5