Cowboys & Aliens – Film Review

ET phone home on the range

Release Date: OUT NOW!
12A | 118 minutes
Distributor: Paramount Pictures
Director: Jon Favreau
Cast: Daniel Craig, Harrison Ford, Olivia Wilde, Sam Rockwell

After kicking his directorial career to the next level with the slick, funny, accomplished Iron Man, Jon Favreau could have been forgiven for clinging to the Marvel train across the next several years, pumping out sequels and overseeing other members of the Avengers. Instead, he’s chosen to pull the eject cord after two Tony Stark outings, and had intended to bring star Robert Downey Jr into a long-gestating adaptation of a little-known comic book that had Steven Spielberg on to produce.

The Downey Jr part of the equation may not have worked out, but Favreau dug his heels in and instead recruited Daniel Craig – reportedly partly because he resembled The Magnificent Seven’s Yul Brynner – to play a man who wakes up in the Arizona desert with no memory of who he is or how he got there. What he does know is that he’s got a weird, glowing metal doohickey attached to his wrist and he needs some help figuring it all out. After violently dispatching a group of thugs who stumble across him, he heads for the tiny, struggling mining town of Absolution, where he runs afoul of the local authorities and winds up in jail. But then the fun really begins, as swooping alien ships arrive and start blowing everything up…

Craig is solid as the mystery man(who eventually learns he’s called Jake Lonergan, but we won’t tell you more than that), and gets to enjoy himself being a man of few words with a take-no-crap attitude to those who aim to cause him trouble. He also comes complete with a troubled backstory, leading to some intriguing flashbacks that steadily build through the running time, alongside grouchy interactions with Ford’s Colonel Woodrow Dolarhyde, the man who rules Absolution with an iron scowl. Ford, naturally, grumps his way through a role that allows him to channel his inner (and outer) sourpuss, though his natural charisma means that he at least never comes across as a stock villain. He’s a frustrated, yet thoughtful man, endlessly annoyed by the privileged arsehole antics of his son Percy.

There Will Be Blood’s Paul Dano brings some spark to that role, but he’s hamstrung by a character that is frankly underwritten. And that’s a complain that can be levelled at a lot of the people here, who are mostly there to either get picked off by the extra-terrestrials or provide padding. While the focus naturally has to be on Ford and Craig, it’s almost a crime to load your cast with talented folk such as Sam Rockwell and Walton Goggins and then give them scant minutes of screen time and barely-there material.

Favreau embraces the old-fashioned feel of the film, employing top-notch effects in the service of having aliens shoot and snatch frontier types into the air as part of their nefarious plan. There are a few effective moments, most notably the night-time attack on Absolution and a climactic battle once the beasties’ true intentions are discovered. Sadly, there’s not a whole lot of spark or originality going on here, despite the smackdown between our human heroes and the invading extra-terrestrials. True, the clash of Western six-shooters, spears and arrows against marauding disintegrator beams is a fun one, but it’s not the first time we’ve seen more primitive types take on invaders from the stars. The plot’s a largely perfunctory tale of various people putting aside their differences in the face of a common enemy. The aliens themselves are, almost to a man (well, beast-thing), characterless cannon fodder. There is one main creature that gets to do a little more, but he’s mostly there just to provide another nemesis for Craig.

What should be a seemingly can’t-miss blend of The Searchers and Close Encounters (with, perhaps, a hint of Independence Day chucked in for good measure), feels like a missed opportunity. A script that’s been through the hands of everyone from Iron Man’s Mark Fergus and Hawk Ostby and Star Trek’s Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci (plus former Lost boss and current Trek sequel collaborator Damon Lindelof) really should have a little more flare to it than this. There are still plot holes you could drive a herd of cattle through, not least of which being the location of the invaders’ main base.

Favreau definitely has the chops to make something like this gallop, but he seems content to let it trot along some very well-trod paths. Cowboys & Aliens is entertaining enough, but no more than your standard blockbuster offering. Given the talent of everyone involved, it’s only right to expect a little something above and beyond. As it is, we get a standard story, some decent setpieces and only a few funny lines. The humour quotient is severely lacking in something that should have the balls to take itself a little less seriously. Take the ride, but don’t blame us if you end up saddle sore.

James White