Thursday, 18 August 2011

The Good, The Bad And The E.T.: Cowboys & Aliens review


Review Scoring Chart - 10: Masterpiece; 9: Outstanding; 8: Very Good; 7: Good; 6: Above Average; 5: Average; 4: Below Average; 3: Bad; 2: Awful; 1: Reprehensible; 0: Non- Functional.

Dir: John Favreau
Stars: Daniel Craig, Harrison Ford, Olivia Wilde, Sam Rockwell, Paul Dano
Running Time: 118mins

Coming from the school of thought which maintains that period drama and science fiction is a dynamite combination, judging by the best-selling results of the novel Pride And Prejudice And Zombies, Cowboys And Aliens comes armed with a fanboy-teasing title which promises to match the slow-burn intensity of John Ford with the vicious action of James Cameron. Throwthe current James Bond and (technically current) Indiana Jones in the lead roles, the Iron Man director behind the camera, and whisk thoroughly for a sure-fire geek hit.

Problem is, someone done messed up that recipe good. Cowboys & Aliens barely managed to recoup half its budget on its US theatrical run and critics have been less than laudatory in their appraisals. The truth is that while the movie isn't as dreadful as has been made out, it is too content to rest on its concept rather than use it to create something memorable or substantial. It is professionally made, appreciates the value of simplicity in storytelling and was mercifully only released in 2D. Unfortunately, everything else about it settles for competence rather than excellence, with characters drawn straight from the big book o' genre clich├ęs and a plot which never takes flight, let alone goes interstellar. 
The questions that the writers needed to ask themselves, when conceiving the Cowboys & Aliens screenplay, were: 'If the aliens were removed, would this still be an interesting Western? And if the cowboys disappeared, would it be an interesting science-fiction movie? Alternately, are the western and sci-fi elements so vital that neither can be removed or replaced?' The answer on all counts is no. The movie combines only the most generic ideas of each, failing to either bring anything original or devise a story that melds both genres into something new. 

As a Western, you have a grizzled anti-hero turning up at a town with a Biblically dramatic name (Absolution) with no memory of his past and a price on his head. The evil landowner holds a grudge, so rides into town to get him. Hardly standout stuff.  As a sci-fi, you have aliens attacking a small town to perform experiments on the locals and tap into a source of valuable minerals. Neither the presence of cowboys or aliens are even necessary to either plot. The aliens could be replaced by any period-specific invading force for the Western, whilst there's no reason the aliens should have invaded the old West rather than a futuristic city more in-keeping with their sci-fi trappings. Even the potentially enjoyable angle of pitting period machinery against alien technology is lost, because the lead character is outfitted with a photon-torpedo bracelet from the outset.

The same goes for the characters, who are all sketched from the most blandest of models. In addition to the anti-hero and evil landowner Western stereotypes, there's a nervous bartender having to overcome his fears; the spoilt son who takes advantage of his powerful father's position; honourable red indians fighting alongside their old oppressors; a mysterious damsel with a habit of getting kidnapped, plus insectoid aliens with icky concealed appendages and no indication of the intelligence which was presumably required to build their snazzy technology.

Yes, stock characters can be part of the fun, but only when used in intelligent ways. Like the mechanical bluntness of its title, Cowboys & Aliens pieces its tropes together because that is what its concept requires, rather than because it has anything worthwhile of its own to say. As for composer Harry Gregson-Williams' attempts to pastiche Morricone's iconic strings in his score - for a movie which takes its inspiration from American rather than Italian Westerns as well, note - the less said the better.

That prosaic assembly even extends to the casting. The presence of Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford in the lead roles might be a marketing dream, but the two actors' screen personae are too similar to produce exciting chemistry. Strong movie partnerships have traditionally had each character acting as the opposite of the other, thus complementing each other's skills. Both Craig and Ford represent the same kind of grouchy tough guy, with the only noticeable difference being their ages.

Had Ford's Dolarhyde stayed on the side of evil, the casting might have worked better as showing a battle between two similarly matched men. As partners, they cancel each other out and come close to crippling the movie's tone with a lack of levity. Whilst no-one likes forced comic relief, some trace of dry humour would have at least given the movie some much needed fun. The only such moment comes when Dolarhyde learns the purpose for the aliens' invasion, but his reaction is unfortunately only amusing as a self-conscious acknowledgement from the writers of how ridiculous (and unexplained) that purpose is.

Fortunately, John Favreau is a competent enough helmsman that while the pieces of his movie are of the most mediocre stock, he shoots his action sequences at an exciting enough pace and maintains a comprehensible sense of geography. The movie has no visual identity to call its own, unless you count the crunching together of iconographies promised by the title, but at least it is easy to follow what is going on. The CGI also has a rare sense of weight, lending credibility to the alien threat and satisfaction when their craft are sent crashing to the dusty Earth. It's hardly enough to save the whole movie, or even several stretches of it from boredom, but at least Favreau manages to spark his picture into life occasionally.

Instead of paying to see Cowboys & Aliens, a more fulfilling strategy would be a DVD double-bill of a good Western followed by a good alien invasion movie. Having the blandest ideas of both genres combined fails to produce exciting results for fans or justify its existence. Like Snakes On A Plane, it's a fun-sounding idea never elevated to anything more than that. Decent effects work and Favreau's reliable hand as director make it the best in the gimmick Western subgenre, but given how its competition is the reprehensible Wild Wild West and vomitrocious Jonah Hex, that couldn't be any less of a recommendation. Cowboys & Aliens' only tangible success is in aiming for mediocrity and achieving it. [ 5 ]


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