Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Cowboys & Aliens Review

Cowboys & Aliens
Directed by Jon Favreau
Released in 2011

A movie's title should communicate not only the concept of the film but some of the tone as well. We should determine whether or not it is a comedy, drama, action film, etc just from the name. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is a crazy title; fitting then, huh? Snakes on a Plane, on the other hand, sounds so self aware that it must be drenched in irony and camp. Cowboys & Aliens carries so little conviction that it should follow the same path. However, the filmmakers attempt to fuse two genres, western and alien invasion, and fail to fulfill either's potential or even basic principles. 

The first shot consists of a sprawling desert landscape, panning right until our hero Jake Lonergan (Daniel Craig) bolts upright into the shot, gasping and searching around for his bearings. He has no memory of who he is or why he is so vulnerable. A promising start. From there the driving Morricone-esque score by Harry Gregson-Williams kicks off as Jake strolls into the local town. The town looks like that Western town we have all seen before; it is believable but without distinction. Same can be said for the costumes:  good work, yes, but nothing we have not seen countless times before. It all works, but lacks consequence. 

Jake arrives just in time, for as the local gang leader's mess of a son (Paul Dano, further establishing himself as the subservient coward character actor of his generation) accidentally shoots the deputy sheriff out of carelessness and pulls Jake into the whole mess too. Just as they board the carriage to take them to the federal marshal, Jake's mysterious wristband begins to buzz and flash as lights in the sky do the same. In the dead of the night a flight of extraterrestrial spacecraft launch a guerrilla attack on the town, plucking several men and women from the ground, conveniently providing reasons for a crew to then set off to find those aliens and, of course, their loved ones. Paul Dano, unsurprisingly, is abducted, so Harrison Ford, his grizzled father Dolarhyde, sets forth beside his former rival,  who now sports that curiously powerful wristband. There is no explanation, ever, as to why the aliens abduct those hapless humans. It is just an evil thing for them to do, providing conflict and fulfilling the stock alien invasion type. Equally unfulfilling is their reason for invading Earth; it is painfully unoriginal. 

Such issues can be whittled down to one reason: there are too many writers. The credits place nine different screenwriters/story developers/comic book writers as the creative force behind the script.  No natural character development or restrained story arc will survive after encountering so many hands. The first half follows the Western progression of new tough man in town,  unwillingly messing the place up, and then vowing to fix it and embarking across the desert with those he affected. In fact, such a worn plot was breathed new life in the excellent Rango earlier this year. 

Not only does this film lack such inspiration, it does not complete the journey our protagonist should complete. The aliens reveal their true form far too early  (Spielberg is attached to this, you'd think he would oversee the cinematic lesson that is literally taught in film school today), and the film begins to switch its gears to alien takedown flick in the vain of Independence Day. A multi-cultural band of enemies unite in order to take down the greater threat; this group includes Jake and Co., Jake's former deadly gang he now disowns, and a surprisingly inoffensive troop of Native Americans. The latter thankfully have some depth in their image, not overly barbaric or unremittingly tied to the spirits around them but somewhere comfortably in between. With the help of those who traveled with him, Jake unites these factions and they all collectively overthrow the intruders. Not enough attention is placed upon Jake, however, as we feel that he only solves the issues from a "shoot the baddies" perspective while the moral choices and reconciliations are left to the love interest, Ella Swenson (Olivia Wilde). By the end, Jake has changed, but it is not his choices that got him there.

The casting contains curiosities, both good and bad. As great as it is to see Harrison Ford in 2011, the man immortalized through the space gunslinger Han Solo has since lost that drive. His performance has some highlights, particularly as he confesses to his right-hand man (Adam Beach) how he wished his son had half his goodwill and courage, and as he finally reunites with his son in the end we feel for him. But we never care for him before these moments, and while that may be by conscious choice, it is not a smart decision for us to barely think of the character when he is off-screen. It takes far too long for us to feel effect, and far too late. After playing the futuristic model of a woman in Tron: Legacy, it feels grossly anachronistic for Olivia Wilde to strap on cowboy boots in the 19th century. She lacks abilities as an actress, specializing in that glazed, seductive stare she exercises so often. Hollywood has been forcing Wilde onto screens lately and I am not sure why, besides the obvious (and I believe overstated) reason. 

The actors who stand out hint at what could have been if the acting ensemble was tighter and script much more focused. Sam Rockwell, unsurprisingly, excels even with his limited material and admittedly bland character. But he has mastered quirky comic delivery as well as an effective state of emotional distress when his character calls for it. His physical struggle to shoot a gun pays off when he finally saves his comrades and takes control of his manhood.  And the best character is the short-lived preacher played by Clancy Brown, the prison guard from The Shawshank Redemption. His down-to-earth spirituality lends weight to the film's thematic potential, suggesting that faith will heal the wounds left by those who harm. But his death (yes I spoil, it is not a big deal) arrives so soon, and this theme, fleetingly touched upon again in the Native American camp, never truly finds its footing. 

I respect that Jon Favreau and the whole outfit of screenwriters approached this film as more than a campy panache. But they take themselves too seriously, and are reluctant to inject any comedy into a product that demands it. The plot wanders, rife with holes and stumbling aimlessly for theme. Much like Jake in the beginning frames. With added levity and, let's say, a Western story arc with alien elements added more naturally and less intrusively, this action film from the director of Iron Man could have been a witty, engaging summer flick. And for godsakes the title is not helping. 

Final Verdict:
2 Stars out of 5

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