Friday, 26 August 2011

Review: Cowboys & Aliens

Rating: 12A
Duration: 118 mins

Earlier in the year I took a look at this summer’s potential big hitters. The three in question were Transformers: Dark of the Moon, which turned out to be one of the worst films of the year, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, in stark contrast was a massive surprise and, along with Super 8, remains my favourite of the summer months. The third was John Favreau's genre hybrid, Cowboys & Aliens. Initial responses to the trailers were largely positive and were further backed by an impressive cast that could outdo many of its competitors.

The success of Iron Man 2 grants its director, Faverau, the freedom to envision this western-cum-sci-fi, action-adventure based on the popular comic book series of the same name. What's more, with heavyweights such as Harrison Ford and Daniel Craig on board, it was hotly billed as 'Indy and Bond take on aliens in the wild west' - An interesting proposition indeed. With quality support in the shape of Sam Rockwell (Moon), Paul Dano (There Will Be Blood) and the inclusion of House hottie, Olivia Wilde, all seemed to point towards an exciting feature that would pull off the feat of achieving something truly great. However, Cowboys & Aliens couldn't be further from this.

Alarm bells will ring among the more perceptive of viewers as the writer credits roll with a whopping five names, which is never a good sign as such pessimism is justified, as tonally it is very unbalanced. The opening scene introduces us to Jake (Craig), who wakes up in the middle of nowhere, void of memory, with an alien-like bracelet clamped to his wrist. Dazed and confused, he makes his way into the town of Absolution, as his new accessory turns a few heads. Local girl, Ella (Wilde), is appears as a mysterious resident who, for reasons unknown, decides to pay particular attention to our befuddled cowboy. Woodrow Dolarhyde (Ford) enters the mix as tough talking, iron fist of the town, who pursues Jake after learning of the bounty on his head. Cue a standoff between the pair just as a swarm of alien crafts swoop over the town blowing up everything in sight and swiping various townsfolk, including Woodrow's son, Percy (Dano). This incident sets up a coalition between the two, and indeed the citizens in general, as they begin to track one injured alien back to base in order to rescue their captives. 

Craig's character initially looks confused as to his predicament, but this bewildered look is something that transpires throughout the entire film; seemingly he has little idea as to what is going on or what he should be doing. The same can be said when we meet the aptly named, Doc (Rockwell), the talent that built a name for himself in acclaimed indie, Moon, appears to have orders to act beneath his capabilities.

You takin' to me?: 'Bewildered' was one of the film's recurring themes
From the outset Ford looks like he's auditioning for a part in There Will Be Blood, complete with grumpy persona and oil tycoon attire to boot. Craig is lazily assembled too, presented as a run-of-the-mill cowboy wearing extremely tight pants, Toy Story's Woody comes across as a far more rounded and assured character than poor, misguided, Jake. After seeing gorgeous Olivia Wilde in The Change Up, she's more plain Jane than of the Calamity variety - the purpose of her inclusion is to create sexual magnetism with Jake and provide much needed eye candy, yet fails to do either.

In fact, establishing non complex, straight forward characters seems commonplace, as the performances never threaten to impress. Dano's turns in both Little Miss Sunshine and There Would Be Blood were superb but, like Rockwell, seem to be under instructions to act dumb as Woodrow’s loud mouth, bumbling son. Whether this simplicity is to remain in touch with the audience is debatable, but it prevents anyone from displaying any sort of depth. What is clear is that they needn't have assembled such a prestigious cast to portray lowly, one dimensional nobodies that lack any charm or charisma, that's for sure.

With promises of an intriguing western mixed with high octane sci-fi, the story actually plods along at a mule’s pace, with few alien based scenes until the latter stages. Favreau fails to splice the genres successfully, which leaves us with a fabricated and lifeless tale that, at the very least, could have taken some inspiration from the likes of True Grit or Meek's Cutoff in terms of creating an authentic American West. 

Script wise, it's sluggish and unsure of its intentions. There's nothing solid to progress with and offers the patient audience little reward. Inexplicable logic, plot twists and sillyness means you'll simply switch off as the final revelations will leave you questioning what the point was and indeed, who it is really aimed at; the conclusion is so misjudged and illogical it'll have you scratching your head until you realise how bullshit the script actually is.

Dazed & Confused: Craig wakes up to discover filming had already begun
The second major problem, other than the bad script, is its director. Favreau doesn't bode a particularly impressive CV and the manner in which he conducts proceedings only proves how out of his depth he is. Somehow he excels in rendering every character, including the leads, into limp, unlikable protagonists suffocated with misdirection, poor dialogue and cheesy scenes that ultimately break the film.
Favreau succeeds in alienating (if you'll excuse the pun) audiences, as our leads fail to engage and in truth you'll stop rooting for them within the first half hour. 

The aesthetic of CGI aliens have been the subject of much debate over the summer (notably Super 8) and in keeping with the rest of the experience, Cowboys & Aliens gives us run of the mill, mediocrity. Unimaginative creatures that resemble the gruesomeness of classic Aliens nasties; they possess limb extensions that break out from their bellies, as it fails to create anywhere near as much fear as the iconic horrors it attempts to rip off. The visual style isn't contextualised and further serves in shattering any illusion that it's a story set in 1873, reminding us of a modern film intending to recreate.

Cowboys & Aliens spectacularly fails to live up to its early promise. The whole thing quickly becomes lost in itself as it doesn't know what wants to do, let alone say. Everything from the acting, to the script, to the direction is below par, as is the ludicrous plot holes and revelations, which further suggest this was too big of a project for Favreau. Instead of containing meaning or logic, it opts for a unintelligent, yet accessible movie, which is a letdown considering what it could have been. Other than an intriguing premise, a few entertaining action sequences and acceptable CGI, there's really nothing else worth seeing here.


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