Review: Cowboys & Aliens / Directed by: Jon Favreau / Screenplay by: Robert Orci, Alex Kurtzman, Damon Lindelof, Mark Fergus, Hawk Ostby / Starring:Daniel Craig, Harrison Ford, Olivia Wilde, Sam Rockwell, Adam Beach, Paul Dano / Release date: Out now
There are some ideas which are brilliant in their simplicity that lead to critically acclaimed blockbuster films, (the 1994 film Speed comes to mind). Then there are ideas which are almost too good that inevitably Hollywood will spend too much money on the final product until the result is a mere shell of that initial idea. Such is the case with Cowboys & Aliens which has five screenwriters credited with the screenplay and is a film so over-developed that the final product is bland blockbuster filmmaking by numbers.
The film begins with Jake Lonegran (Daniel Craig) waking up in the desert with no memory of who he is or how he got there. He has some kind of metallic device attached to his wrist and is wounded. After despatching a bunch of bandits who harass him, he heads into town. There he runs afoul of the son of a wealthy and ruthless cattle farmer Woodrow Dollarhyde (Harrison Ford) and finds out he is wanted by the law for crimes he does not remember. Lonegran also attracts the attention of a local prostitute (Olivia Wilde) who seems to be very interested in his new fancy wrist contraption. Suddenly (and it seems to happen this quickly) aliens attack the town and kidnap half of the townsfolk including Dollarhyde’s son. Jake finds that his wrist jewellery is actually a weapon and the only thing that has an effect on the aliens craft and technology. Dollarhyde, Lonegran and the towns people form an uneasy alliance and go out to find the kidnapped and destroy the alien menace.
For those of you who like Westerns, all the usual tropes are present and correct. You have the mysterious man with (initially) no name. You have the ruthless land baron, the ineffectual sheriff, the kindly preacher, whore with a heart of gold and the bumbling bartender. It feels very much like its ticking off clichés and joining the dots before an alien even shows up. The film is also surprisingly brutal, people are stabbed and shot violently in the opening scene and it doesn’t downplay the gritty realism in any way, which is why I think ultimately the film doesn’t work as it’s not sure what it wants to be. The aliens are not given short shrift either and when they actually are on screen they are just as viscous and brutal as the cowboys. It’s a film called Cowboys & Aliens and should write itself based on the potential of that premise. Sadly the film does not commit to either genre fully and all the grit in the world makes no difference if you are going to have stupid CGI aliens show up.
When a big blockbuster film is in development, it’s not unusual for another writer to be brought on board to polish up the dialogue or bring up the action quota. When a film has five credited writers, it’s usually a bad sign. I can imagine Cowboys & Aliens initial script being a fun genre mash up along the lines of Tremors or Attack the Block. By bringing in more and more writers during the development phase, what was good about the script has been diluted and lost as the studio tried to make as safe a blockbuster as possible. Add to this a director that does not know what type of film he is trying to make and it was never going to end well.
The script is ultimately what lets the film down; the aliens’ motivations make very little sense. For a race of dumb, brutish frog gorilla type things they sure do have some shiny technology. Their reasons for attacking us also seem to be just to mine gold, for what purpose is never made clear, which is ridiculous and is up there with the logic displayed by the aliens in M.Night Shyamalan’s Signs. Olivia Wilde’s character has a big reveal part way through the film which we will not spoil, but will say it’s something that no doubt at some point made sense to one of the writers working on this and seems to have been forgotten by the subsequent writers so just sits there not making any sense at all as merely an excuse to get Wilde naked. We wish they had just gone silly with this film we really do, not Meet the Spartans type of silly but just had fun and ramped up the ridiculousness of it all and gone full blown violent and gory. Anything would be better than the end result as it’s just so bland and joyless.
Daniel Craig certainly looks the part as the ‘man with no name’ gunslinger but when he is called on to actually act or give motivating speeches he just looks uncomfortable. Thank goodness then for Harrison Ford who finally comes to life after years in a coma and has a whale of a time as a ruthless, snarling cattle farmer. The rest of the cast is made up of quality supporting players like Clancy Brown, Sam Rockwell and Paul Dano who all make the most of their clichéd characters.
Cowboys & Aliens is a safe, standard Saturday night rental prospect but if you are expecting true thrills or something that doesn’t follow the expected route then look elsewhere.
Extras: Extended version of the film (Blu-Ray only), Commentary with John Favreau, Interview with John Favreau, Igniting the Sky; The making of 'Cowboys & Aliens'.