Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Review - Cowboys & Aliens

A stranger wakes up in the middle of the desert with no recollection of who he is or where he's been except for a faint memory of a woman and a foreign object attached to his wrist. After drifting into a local mining town, the stranger comes to realize he was abducted by an alien race and may hold the key to defeating them.

Mixing genres can be a tricky thing. A movie like "Cowboys & Aliens" takes two specific genres that fans the world over adore and smashes them together for better or for worse. At its core, the summer action adventure is a straight-up western with an alien invasion spliced in. As a western, director Jon Favreau delivered a film that blends two distinct types of westerns. For starters he went back in time to when westerns had clearly defined villains, the Native American. Old westerns played up the gimmick of evil Indians who were a blight on society. These old westerns were a goof and unaware how truly racist they were. As history/historians progressed and America realized the wrongs they had done to a entire race of people during western expansionism, the previous villainous tone shifted in western movies to a far more serious one. Westerns then turned into heroism and redemption tales told through a stoic figure.

The aliens in "Cowboys & Aliens" is what allowed director Jon Favreau and the screenwriting team the ability to call back to the early western movies and the tropes they used so heavily. Just replace Native Americans with aliens. You then have a clear definable enemy that the cowboys must destroy to return to the normal lives. Much like how early settlers felt Native Americans were invaders on their land, so too are the aliens within this 118 minute adventure. About the aliens for a minute. I loved the design of the creatures. Imposing forces that are distinct yet call back to alien designs scifi fans will be familiar with. Not only that but there is a solid build to the aliens. Like so many of the best scifi/horror films these vicious beasts lurk in the shadows and are teased building up to the massive payoff at the end.

There is a downside to the aliens however, as imposing as they look, the threat level never reaches its boiling point. Instead it only simmers. The aliens are menacing, yet they never invoke the level of fear they should. Some of this can certainly be blamed on appealing to a wide age demographic, but overall the stakes needed to be higher. Take the capture sequences for example. The aliens fly in what look to be metal insects and lasso the victims into their ships. These sequences could have been terrifying and thrilling all at the same time, yet they aren't. They are ultimately too quick and end up feeling like an afterthought. To make matters worse, what the aliens do with the victims once they've captured them is barely explained and becomes one of few plot holes audiences are sure to question.

"Cowboys & Aliens" has an amazing cast but that actually becomes part of the problem. Take Harrison Ford for example, this is a guy that older audiences are going to recognize and instantly call back to his iconic career, yet younger audiences will probably walk away thinking who was the old grumpy guy? Jon Favreau wanted audiences to call back on Harrison Ford's career while he's on screen. As if that was some form of actual character development. The film undermines Ford's performance by thinking nostalgia will kick in. Part me has to blame director Jon Favreau for this. I'm sure Favreau was taken back by having Harrison Ford on board and I wonder how much directing he really did with him. I hate to say it but I can imagine Favreau being a huge fanboy and geeking out while Harrison Ford was in front of cameras instead of actually providing direction for him, direction that Ford needed. It is a bittersweet disappointment to finally see Harrison Ford in a western and for his performance to come across as just going through the motions. Compounding the disappointment is a number of moments that were specifically written to be huge turning points garnering swelling reactions, yet they never happen.

The same can be said to a lesser degree about Daniel Craig. Its the, "look its James Bond" idea. In the example of Daniel Craig however, I actually thought he nailed the stoic stranger trope. Craig carries this movie despite doing nothing much else than pointing his arm at aliens and looking pissed off twenty-four/seven. Truthfully, the discovery of his character as the adventure develops is a bore though Craig is such a fabulous hero, he is able to rise above the bad character and script development. I didn't care at all about Jake Lonergan learning who he was I just wanted to see more of him riding horses, firing his weaponry and taking on over-sized aliens. As for the supporting cast, most were in top form including Sam Rockwell, Paul Dano, Clancy Brown, Adam Beach, Walton Goggins and Kieth Carradine. Rockwell has perfect comedic relief bridging some of the action sequences to the more plot driven moments. Olivia Wilde comes across stiff throughout. She leaves an impression of nothing more than mere window dressing regardless of the fact the film continually tells you she is important. Noah Ringer is grating to watch as the pouting faced boy who wants his grandpa back. Ringer's character Emmett, seems to be allowed to tag along throughout the film in order to assure younger audiences its going to be okay, but Ringer's portrayal makes the cheesy boy-to-man arc a real chore to sit through.

Filmed in New Mexico the scenery and exteriors throughout "Cowboys & Aliens" are gorgeous. The audience really gets to see the beauty of the wide open spaces in the West and cinematographer Matthew Libatique captures it phenomenally. Set designers did a solid job of making the small mining town feel authentic and not look like a set thrown together in the middle of the New Mexican desert. The designs of the main alien ship are practical, looked organic to the nature of the genre-mashing adventure and also called back to scifi lore of the past. The reasoning behind the alien invasion is also organic to the era and the nature of westerns, which I found both simple and smart. The sound design and score deserved mention, particularly how they shifted between the two genres. While Harry Gregson-Williams score needed a little something more to make it lasting, the balance throughout the film is steady and pulled me through the adventure.

It is clear that director Jon Favreau made an adventure he wanted to make and had a blast doing so. The film aptly calls to a number of tropes in both the scifi genre and the western genre combining them in a enjoyable manner. This is a movie I had skyrocket hopes for and I'd be lying if I said I walked away satisfied. That said, I still got a huge kick out of it. Living up to the expectations I had for this movie was probably never gonna happen and I admire what Jon Favreau has put on screen. He's made a movie that made film feel good and gave him all the thrills he wanted to see. I respect that even if it wasn't exactly what I hoped for.