Wednesday, 24 August 2011

Cowboys and Aliens [Review]

If you watch any science-fiction film from the first half of the 20th Century, you’re most likely to find a world populated with small, green aliens, usually labelled ‘Martians’ (for serious want of a better name), maybe sporting an extra eye or ear or something. For the first generation of science-fiction films, this was the typical extra-terrestrial, exemplified perhaps in Looney TunesMarvin the Martian (okay, so maybe he wasn't green, but his helmet was!).

How times change. Nowadays, it seems the prerequisite for any alien is a gritty, dirt-tinted skin tone, a body larger than any man’s with arms longer than legs (and possibly multiple arms), and some kind of bulbous eyes. Cloverfield, Super 8 - modern monster movies now seem as uninspired in their character design as that constant barrage of little green men must have done sixty years ago. Cowboys and Aliens, it disappoints me to write, diverts little from this modern stereotype.

But a word of warning: while it will not surprise in character design, Cowboys and Aliens will certainly surprise in its tone and content. And, sadly, I don’t mean that in a positive way. Director Jon Favreau’s most recent works are the Iron Man films - action, action and more action, with a little bit of character. While the first was lauded as one of the greatest Marvel films to date, the second received far more negative reviews, and consequently Favreau has parted ways for the upcoming threequel. If Cowboys and Aliens is any indication (and Iron Man 2 certainly is), this can only be a good thing.

The premise is simple (or simply daft); a small village of homesteaders in 1873 Arizona find themselves under attack from alien craft, not long after a mysterious, unnamed stranger with an even stranger bracelet bequeaths himself upon them. That man is Daniel Craig - gritty, brutal and hard as nails in the finest performance the two hours runtime has to offer - as Jake Lonergan, outlaw and wanted criminal. Opposite him is Colonel Woodrow Dolarhyde, one of Jake’s victims, played by a tired Harrison Ford. That’s not to say Ford’s acting is terrible; it’s just nowhere near on par with his past work, a theme that runs ever more apparent in his recent films.

During the aforementioned attack, however, several prominent townsfolk are abducted, and the posse band together - Dolarhyde and Lonergan shoulder-to-shoulder - to retrieve their captured brethren. In this way, the first half of Cowboys and Aliens plays out like a Western mystery film - following trails, flashbacks, etc. However, such use of flashbacks to explore Lonergan’s past seems out of place, even in such a mesh of genres as this. The visual effects during these piecemeal memories are an unwanted distraction, and show flaws in Favreau’s work.

The surprises of the film come in its nature: an inane concept, but one that is taken with far too much seriousness - Cowboys and Aliens is harsh, brutal and smeared in blood and sweat. Prisoners incinerated; children using knives to save the day; it’s not exactly laugh-a-minute stuff, and definitely not what you’d expect from the suggestive title.

Meanwhile, the film’s barely existent plot is more of an afterthought than anything else, and Ford’s remark to the excuse - sorry, reason - the aliens are attacking (for gold, apparently) speaks for itself: “that’s ridiculous. What are they gonna do with it? Buy things?” For the most part, the mismatch of genre styles seems like nothing more than an excuse for Favreau to have some men in Stetsons beat up CGI blobs. Similarly, loose morals are crammed in last minute, with cheesy, clichéd redemptions undercooked and unnecessary. In a film where knives are the shining beacon of justice, handed out by father of hope Colonel Dolarhyde, was it so crucial that all the elements that made the characters interesting be taken away, in favour of yet another happy ending (where everyone’s no doubt learnt their lesson; slap on the wrist and off you go)? I think not.

Cowboys and Aliens looked set to be one of the great blockbusters of summer 2011, but without even a hint of irony in its tone, coupled with a lacklustre plot, the film fails to live up to expectations. It’s not much fun, ridiculously hard-hitting, and there’s no point to it. All I can say for it is that the action sequences are at least mildly entertaining, helped by a lack of blurry 3D, and that it’s still, somehow, watchable. Maybe it’s the actually engaging ‘mystery’ trail across the desert in the film’s first half, or the too-few gags that appear every now and then, or the [barely] adequate cast. But even still, Cowboys and Aliens could have been so much better.


See also: War of the Worlds (2005), District 9 (2009)

Dir: Jon Favreau
Cast: Daniel Craig, Harrison Ford, Olivia Wilde
Universal Pictures, 119 mins, 17/08/11

Synopsis: A stranger with no memory of his past stumbles into the hard desert town of Absolution. Soon, with the help of a strange mechanical wristband, he's helping lead the fight against swarms of alien spacecraft, all the while trying to piece together his past...


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