Whilst Cowboys & Aliens is loosely based on a comic book, it’s refreshing to not have to start a review with “the sequel to..” or “a remake of..”. And with a title that is in the same league for subtlety as Snakes on a Plane, you’d think you’d know what to expect in terms of content; yes, there are cowboys and aliens, but it appears the town isn’t big enough to fit in any fun.
Daniel Craig stars as Jake Lonergan, an outlaw in 19th Century Arizona who wakes up in the plains with no memory of who he is or how he got there. A large bracelet has been attached to his wrist which he has no recollection of how he came to own it, nor can he remove it. After recovering some of his bearings, he wanders into the nearest town of Absolution, where he first becomes aware of his notoriety: a wanted (dead or alive) poster lists the crimes he is charged with and a handsome reward for anyone who nabs him. The local sheriff eventually manages the task, and just as he’s about to set off for the county jail, the small town is attacked by alien ships which bomb the town and string up locals before flying off with them. However, the metal bracelet that Lonergan possesses activates and becomes a weapon, the weapon, that is capable of destroying the invaders. With this invaluable tool, he joins a rescue party led by a bad tempered war veteran Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford) to find out and hopefully bring back their loved ones who were so swiftly and cruelly taken by the aliens.
Daniel Craig is no stranger to the role of a ‘badass’; in 2006 he replaced Pierce Brosnan as the secret agent James Bond, and also was a British gangster in Matthew Vaughn’s Layer Cake. Here, as Jake Lonergan, he uses his previous experience in those roles to create his most hardened persona to date – within the first five minutes of seeing him, he’s pummelled 5 guys into tomorrow. This is great and all for an outlaw, but a smile or a one liner at some point wouldn’t hurt, would it? Harrison Ford’s character,which he does play well, isn’t much more fun loving either, constantly spouting cynical remarks and depressing stories. Considering these are the two leads, there would conventionally be one that provided a little comic relief (see Men In Black, Lethal Weapon, The Last Boy Scout, pretty much every ‘buddy’ movie). The slightest semblance of comedy comes from Sam Rockwell (Moon, Iron Man 2) and his misfiring shenanigans. I know I’m focusing a lot on the aspect of humour, but c’mon, the premise of Cowboys and Aliens is hardly one to be taken seriously. It seems that’s exactly what the 5 (five) screenwriters have done, and in their attempts to scrape together a narrative arc that fills 2 hours, they’ve overlooked, y’know, the “fun” part of a movie like this. It’s a straight-shooting, no nonsense sci-fi actioner. Unfortunately.
Olivia Wilde continues the trend of solid performances as Elle, a mysterious town inhabitant who clearly knows more about Lonergan as she’s letting on. It’s with her that the majority of plot holes lie, but I won’t get into those because I’d risk spoiling the rest of the movie. Nevertheless, she’s the most interesting character and by keeping most of the cards to her chest (metaphorically speaking of course), she maintains an air of intrigue that is a definite positive for the film.
The creatures are undoubtedly the most impressive seen in any movie of 2011. Almost a hybrid of District 9‘s ‘prawns’ and Cloverfield‘s behemoth, these aliens are genuinely menacing and prove to be a real threat, one that can’t be solved with pistols alone. One criticism I heard was that the entire plot was flawed because “aliens with advanced weaponry would easily take out men on horseback”. Well if that reviewer had actually seen the film, they’d know that’s exactly what happens: the cowboys barely stand a chance with their primitive guns. When the confrontations between the cowboys and aliens occur though, they’re slightly lacklustre and don’t quite get the adrenaline pumping as much as it should. The real entertainment, for me, came from the opening 20 minutes and any scenes that only had cowboys in them: it certainly worked better as just a cowboy movie for me, and I hope Favreau makes a film dedicated to that particular genre in the near future.
Anchored by strong performances all round but far too dark and serious for its own good, Cowboys & Aliens is a missed opportunity to of pure popcorn entertainment, but the unique alien design and premise alone raise this above the average mark.