Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Cowboys & Aliens (2011) – Review

Review: Cowboys & Aliens is probably a better western than it is a sci-fi adventure, but sadly it is not a western. It is an adventure film with villains that have no emotional impact whatsoever. The audience does not care about the villains and thus the stakes are not two-sided putting all the dramatic weight on the heroes – the problem is that director Jon Favreau did not really develop the heroes much either, relying instead on action, spectacle and his stars to carry the film. This would have been fine, except the pacing is very slow at times leaving most of the film feeling boring (which is a surprise for a summer blockbuster). The aliens have no inherent humanity about them, they are just here to destroy our world (a bit like Battle: Los Angeles, only the stakes feel a lot more life-and-death in that film).  And the heroes are made up of either undeveloped characters like Doc and Ella, bit players like Alice, Meacham, Percy, Nat, and Hunt or western genre caricatures like Colonel Dolarhyde and Jake Lonergan. Dolarhyde and Lonergan are the characters the audience is intended to relate to and be invested in. However, and especially in the case of Dolarhyde, Favreau banks too much on the star appeal and persona of his actors than developing authentic deep characters. Thus, the audience does not care about the villains and does not really care about the heroes, outside of a love of and draw to the actors playing them. Lonergan does have some good development work, but the man he was in the flashbacks seems to not resemble who he is at present in the film, thus the audience almost dismisses any backstory and takes the character at face value on what he is doing at present, which in a way does help the relationship he has with Ella work more than it otherwise should. All in all, the film is poorly made from a narrative standpoint. That said, the aesthetics, especially the look and style of the western side of things, are great and provide the best moments in the film – the opening sequence of Lonergan waking up and finding the town, Lonergan’s run-in with his old gang and the end battle with the Aliens is good fun too, and it helps that the audience somewhat cares about Ella and Lonergan. The rest of the film just sort of drags, brought down by poorly done supporting seemingly pointless characters and terrible pacing. If a film is not going to be ripe with lush characters and well done drama, at least keep the action and pacing tight enough to keep things moving. And that sums up Cowboys & Aliens – some good action, well done western motifs but poorly made overall (leaving me to wish that this was an actual western drama and not a sci-fi adventure).

Technical, aesthetic & acting achievements: Jon Favreau began to position himself as a good action director with his work on the Iron Man series (neither one is great, as both suffer from somewhat crippling narrative issues, but they are fun entertaining action films). Cowboys & Aliens, in a way, further exposes his directorial shortcomings and reliance on his stars to carry his films (which is also the case with Iron Man). It is not nearly as good as either Iron Man film. The film also calls into question the quality of writers Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman (who only seem to make good stuff when working with J.J. Abrams), as they also recently wrote the completely terrible Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. The score by Harry Gregson-Williams is fun, as he blends a classic western vibe with sort of the typical superhero adventure compositions. Matthew Libatique’s cinematography is not as good as his usual work. The action is often muddled and disconnected (though, this is on Favreau too), while a lot of the film is too dark (do we ever actually get a good look at the aliens? I cannot imagine seeing this in 3D, it would just a black screen the whole time). Scott Chambliss’s production design steals the show a bit (his set for the town is spot on, and I loved the look of the inside of the riverboat). One paper, the cast is great and perfect for this sort of genre blending film. However, great actors like Sam Rockwell are given essentially nothing real to do, working with a few clichés and minimal character (the role as it appears onscreen was pretty much a waste of his time, and certainly his talent). Probably the best work is done by the bit players: Paul Dano (who is so good at playing a whiny jackass, see There Will Be Blood for reference), Adam Beach (who actually emotes real drama in a film almost void of it), Keith Carradine (who is beyond perfect for any western), Abigail Spencer, Walton Goggins, and David O’Hara deliver good moments. The stars are alright, but really they were not given much to do.  Olivia Wilde is very detached, but it works decently enough as the story develops. Harrison Ford has to almost completely rely on his own screen persona and Daniel Craig, who has probably the best role in the film from an actor’s standpoint, is quite good and compelling and his good work goes a long way in making the film entertaining.

Summary & score: With all its issues, it is thanks to great star power and operating in fun genres that Cowboys & Aliens is able to be entertaining at all. 6/10

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