Damn you, Cowboys & Aliens! I really wanted to like you. I really, truly did. I liked Jon Favreau’s other films, and the actor/director seems like a cool dude. I dug the cast (including Daniel Craig, Harrison Ford, Sam Rockwell and Olivia Wilde), too. Many critics jumped all over the film when it arrived in theaters, but I wanted to give the movie the benefit of the doubt. Cowboys fighting aliens in a vintage western setting? Sounds like fodder for a good old-fashioned B-movie, something that might play better on home video. And the film does start out promising. Alas, Cowboys & Aliens slowly unravels in a whirlwind of dull and boring, and all fun, thrills and mystery virtually evaporate from the feature before the first hour has ended.
Favreau allegedly fought an uphill battle when making Cowboys & Aliens, and it shows. The film is designed by the director to play more as a true cold-blooded western than a goofy sci-fi feature – a creative choice he foolishly fought through production. It would seem he (and producers) were afraid the outlandish title might illicit laughs and not much confidence in the viewer, so they felt the film needed to play things absolutely serious in order to surprise audiences. Problem is, the title suggests something the film never fully capitalizes on – fun. Worse, despite a two-hour running time, there are very few aliens in Cowboys & Aliens, save for the finale and a few scenes here and there, mostly stuff seen in the film’s trailer.
But aliens are not really what Cowboys & Aliens focuses on. No, it’s an old school western – a bad one at that. The film is mercilessly dull (even more so in the included extended cut), with over-dramatized, one-dimensional characters, tired dialogue and odd switches in motivation. For example, in the opening, Ford’s rugged, brutal cow farmer appears to be the film’s primary human villain, but that all but escapes the character before we even reach the halfway mark.
Just about every performer in the film looks and plays the role like they just pulled an all-nighter. Ford looks bored and tired. Craig is given nothing interesting to do. Rockwell delivers the most stoic performance of his career. And Wilde (a very funny actress/comedian), is given no real emotional core or sense of humor. The script certainly tries to give heart to everyone, but no one seems willing to commit to their characters enough to make the whole experience feel real, save for maybe Clancy Brown, who plays a local preacher.
Even more frustrating is the film’s very inexpensive look. Don’t expect any harrowing alien invasions, just a slew of random pyrotechnics going off all over a flat, sandy desert setting. The aliens look stale, and poorly designed, playing off similar cues to Universal’s other alien invasion movie Skyline. Even the alien’s ship, design and overall look are generally the same. And the film’s final set piece is about as dull as they come. Costume design works, but it’s nothing we haven’t seen in other recent westerns.
With a dynamite premise under its belt, it truly is shocking that Cowboys & Aliens falters. Why did the production team feel the need to play things as serious as possible? They claimed to have gone for a Sergio Leone look and feel, but they got it all wrong. Watch just one of his films (any of the Man with No Name films will do) and you’ll quickly see a clear sense of humor. The characters are interesting. The story is silly when it needs to be and serious when it counts. The action is exciting. And the set pieces are refreshing and original (not to mention clever, too). These are movies that are having fun.
Cowboys & Aliens is a film that seems to literally step away from any semblance of humor or fun. It doesn’t acknowledge the goofy premise. It doesn’t try to paint the world with rounded, colorful characters. It doesn’t offer anything fresh or visually fascinating. It’s a blank, emotionless, illogical, hollow action picture pretending to be a real western. I really thought Cowboys & Aliens would work for me. The premise was there, but the film just doesn’t deliver.
Universal brings Cowboys & Aliens to Blu-ray encoded in 1080p/AVC (2.40:1), mixed in 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio. Don’t fret – the disc looks and sounds amazing. The transfer is filled with visual nuance, not to mention some occasionally striking cinematography, especially when our heroes journey to find the alien ship (a journey that consumes a good 80 minutes of the movie). Grain is noticeable throughout, but it’s consistent and gritty, adding atmosphere to the western motifs. Blacks, on the other hand, feel a bit off, especially when the film goes indoors. The image almost looks artificially brightened in order to erase noise from a low-light setting. It looks fine, but not nearly as striking as the outdoor sequences.
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