The premise of Jon Favreau’s Cowboys & Aliens is readily apparent from the title, and with a cast that includes leads Daniel Craig, Harrison Ford, Sam Rockwell, Olivia Wilde, and genre figures like Clancy Brown, Walton Goggins and Keith Carradine it’s got the right stars for a modern western. And yet the film struggled at the box office and barely crossed the hundred million dollar mark. In the age of the super-expensive blockbuster, this was a misfire. Of course marketing can always be blamed, but after watching the film it easy to see why it struggled to make an impression. As a genre mash-up, it’s not enough of one or the other to be satisfying. Our review of Cowboys & Aliens on Blu-ray follows after the jump.
The film starts well enough. Jake Lonergan (Craig) wakes up not knowing who or where he is. Men approach and he cuts them down quick. Like Jason Bourne, he’s a man with gifts unsure of how he acquired them. He goes into town and it’s proven that he’s a criminal, and specifically wanted by Woodrow Dolarhyde (Ford) for the theft of his gold. Dolarhyde’s got his own problems: his son Percy (Paul Dano) is a no good kid punk kid who thinks nothing of shooting up the town. Jake woke up with a weird gadget on his arm, and when the town is attacked by aliens he’s able to use it against them without really knowing what it is. With many of the townspeople kidnapped by the aliens, Jake leads a rescue posse with Dolarhyde and the mysterious Ella Swenson (Wilde).
One of the biggest problems with Cowboys and Aliens is that the film sets up a mystery about who the main character is – and though Craig is fine and woody as the tough hombre that learns of his less than savory past – when the pieces start coming together about how he got the thing on his arm or who he was they’re not that satisfying. Arguably this has been a problem with writers Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci – in their Mission: Impossible: III script they had a character chasing an object they chose not to explain. Which is cute, but here it feels like they’ve set themselves up very well without knowing how to deliver the knock out explanation. When the pieces come together it feels about as exciting as finding misplaced car 1keys.
But that’s only one problem with the material. The majority of the cast are lazily sketched, and so with all the talent in front of the camera, you expect roles that have more to do than a plot point or two. Sam Rockwell’s character isn’t good with guns, but by the end… same with a kid in the film, there’s set up and pay offs, but they never delight so much as fall into place. Perhaps this would have worked better if the film played like a real western, but you don’t a feel of much John Ford, Sam Peckinpah, or any classic western directors in the film. That would work fine if the story was compelling on its own, but Favreau doesn’t seem to love the genre with any great passion.
And then there’s the aliens, who are painfully uninteresting to look at. You really want good monsters in a film like this, but when the creatures are revealed, it’s more of a shrug than anything, along with their devious plan. They came to earth for a reason, and it’s a good enough idea if it were executed a little better. The film lacks the energy of great pulp.
If the film has any saving graces, it’s that Harrison Ford seems more awake than usual. Ford has been showing his age for a while now, and in his more recent work he seems bored half the time. Here he brings back the charisma in full force for a couple of moments, and he enjoys playing the less than savory aspects of his character. Craig is also fine in his role, but because he turns out to be a good guy and seems that way from the start, he doesn’t catch the same gleam as the most famous man with no name. Even when Clint Eastwood was playing the good guy in The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, he was still a do-dirt dude. There’s never that same sort of moral uncertainty here and it would definitely kick the film up a level. These problems are why it’s hard to call the film a pastiche, even though it obviously owes a lot to a number of different films, but more than anything it needed to feel a little more like a Western.
Universal’s Blu-ray presents the film in widescreen and in DTS-HD 5.1 Surround. No complaints about the look and soundtrack of the movie, it’s polished. The Blu-ray also comes with a DVD and digital copy. The film also comes with a thoughtful commentary by Jon Favreau, and he loves the format and it shows. There’s also a second screen and U-Control Picture in Picture to go with the film, with the latter featuring behind the scenes bits. But the best supplement on the disc is “Conversations with Jon Favreau.” He interviews Daniel Craig (15 min.), Harrison Ford (19 min.) Olivia Wilde (11 min.), Steven Spielberg, Ron Howard and Brian Grazer (14 min.), Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman (7 min.) and Damon Lindelof (14 min.) The conversations with Ford and Spielberg are very engrossing, and Favreau gets great things out of them. There’s also a five-part making of (40 min.), with both the interviews and the making of sampled in the PIP.