Cowboys & Aliens review

Cowboys & Aliens. The title itself sounds like a fantastic concept. Few may be aware of Scott Mitchell Rosenberg’s graphic novel which the film is based on. Regardless, this feels like a brave idea masquerading as something original; like filling up a bottle of Old Spice with Febreze.

19th century Arizona, a stranger (Daniel Craig) wakes up in the middle of nowhere with no recollection as to who he is or how he got there. He is also wounded and has a weird mystical bracelet on his arm. Either he’s suffering from the worst hangover ever, or he was abducted by a tramp. He makes his way to the town of Absolution, run by Colonel Woodrow Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford). A wanted poster confirms the stranger’s identity as Jake Lonergan. Questioned by the equally mysterious Ella (Olivia Wilde) about his memory and his bracelet, Lonergan is eventually arrested by sheriff John Taggart (Keith Carradine). However, before being taken to court, Absolution is suddenly attacked by creatures from the sky, kidnapping some of the townsfolk, including Woodrow’s son Percy (Paul Dano). Now Woodrow and Lonergan must band together to save their people.

Directed by Jon Favreau, Cowboys &Aliens is more western than sci-fi. Mostly humourless and devoid of wit, the film turns out to be pretty dark and violent, especially for a 12A, with its exploding alien and a squeamish moment of wound stitching. It’s also overly serious. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, in fact there’s nothing majorly wrong with the film. It’s just that given the high concept of a 19th century setting with spaceships, alien creatures (which the characters refer to as demons), and an out of this world weapon in the form of an arm cannon, the film comes across as largely straightforward. Aliens arrive, and cowboys fight it out with them. With its Ronseal title, the film does exactly what it says on the tin, nothing more, and nothing less.

I would have suspected that part of the reason for this might be the source material itself, which along with the film shares a rather impassive tone. However the big screen adaptation differs from it immensely, with different characters in the same setting. The altered storyline might also explain why seven people are listed under the writing credits for the film.

Keeping with a basic premise means that it’s largely predictable. Part of that may be down to me having been weaned on westerns and alien flicks, but the western setting means that there are some familiar genre traits. With its range of stock characters, such as the mysterious stranger, the preacher (Clancy Brown), a bartender (Sam Rockwell) and the boss’ right-hand man (Adam Beach), you’ll find that these characters also share stories over a fire. At one point, the sheriff’s young grandson Emmett (Noah Ringer) receives a knife from Woodrow (you shouldn’t have to second-guess what he does with it), and you also get the usual guys bonding over a fight, with Lonergan punching Woodrow in the face, who does nothing but look back at Lonergan in a somewhat understanding manner.

While it’s nice to mix it up with a genre hybrid that includes aliens, they come across as vacant substitutes. Apart from looking physically different, mentally they’re still the same bad guys with a greed for gold. They just happen to have spaceships instead of horses, and slightly more powerful weapons. Unfortunately they don’t really say anything either, which makes their motivations less clear.

There are momentary highlights of cattle mutilation and some great jumpy scares. There are even a few sly references to the likes of Indiana Jones (while a canyon explodes, Lonergan takes the time to pick up his hat) and Predator (“I don’t know what it is, but it’s bleeding.”). Plus, the strong talents of Ford, Craig and Rockwell certainly can’t be faulted. However, it feels like a great idea is being restrained from being greater due to a serviceable yet linear narrative. Sure, I was entertained, but Cowboys & Aliens seems content with just touching the bar rather than doing bench presses with it.

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