Review: Cowboys & Aliens (2011)

Director: Jon Favreau

**

In an episode of South Park, Cartman (whilst dressed as a robot) is roped in by a Hollywood studio to generate possible plot outlines for future movies. He does, and they all sound dumb and most star Adam Sandler. Cowboys & Aliens doesn’t star Adam Sandler (Thank heaven for small mercies!), but it is exactly the kind of minimal and, dare we say, dumb idea a machine (or a boy dressed as a machine) would conjour. Take two established genres, mash ‘em together and see what happens! Plenty happens in Cowboys & Aliens, but nothing of note. For a film that dreams of turning at least one genre on its head, it’s bizarrely unremarkable.

The film opens with a solitary man, Jake (Daniel Craig), waking up alone on the plains with no recollection of how he got there. His only clue is a strange device on his wrist. The solitary stranger coming into town to stir things up is an integral part of many Westerns, and if the supernatural element were removed, you’d have the makings of a gritty but still fun little oater in the vein of Sam Raimi’s The Quick And The Dead. There’s a purty laydee (Olivia Wilde’s Ella) for Jake to get close to, and a hard-as-nails authority figure (Harrison Ford’s Dolarhyde) to challenge, plus a town full of cardboard cutout characters (preacher, doctor, innkeeper) to create a little southwestern atmos. Director Jon Favreau shows some promise with the Western material, with bursts of gunslinging violence and tough talk (showing some grit that was critically lacking in his Iron Man movies). Unfortunately, we soon see some lights in the sky, buildings start exploding and townsfolk are being kidnapped by spaceships. This causes the gizmo on Jake’s wrist to act up, shooting out lasers and scaring off the spaceships. The stranger’s got a shady past… now where have we heard that before? The film’s reliance on old genre staples is both a blessing and a curse; it grounds the film, but it also allows the five (too many cooks?) screenwriters to get lazy, throwing as much familiar touches into the mix until it becomes patronizing.

As much as we want to go with it, the idea of aliens attacking the old West is too silly. As a posse is rounded up to search for the kidnapped townspeople, and they get the help of some local Native Americans, more silliness ensues. Apparently, another of the townsfolk has a shady (read: ridiculous) past, and the aliens are here for our gold (which was also what the aliens wanted in Battlefield Earth. Not a good touchstone!). Favreau clearly cares more about the Western side of things, given how great the sets and locations look, and how underdeveloped the aliens are (they look like one of District 9’s prawns mated with a brick). Even with the focus on the Western, great actors like Sam Rockwell and Clancy Brown are wasted on stock characters. The action is competent, but nothing special, as the set pieces lack the novelty of any of Iron Man’s routs. If they’d hired Clint Eastwood to don the Man With No Name’s poncho once more, and had him go up against Predator, that might have been worth watching. As it is, Cowboys & Aliens boils down to a regrettably forgettable novelty.

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