Tuesday, August 2, 2011

"Cowboys & Aliens" (2011)

Starring Daniel Craig, Harrison Ford and Olivia Wilde
Written by Damon Lindelof, Alex Kurtzman, Roberto Orci, Mark Fergus, and Hawk Ostby
Directed by Jon Favreau
Rated PG-13 - Sci-fi violence, language
Running Time: 118 Minutes

I have to admit that much of my taste in movies and TV is based upon the interests of my father, who was very keen about introducing me to the things that he enjoyed when I was younger.  One of the things that I've never really managed to get, however, was his love of westerns.  While I've been able to enjoy the rare western ("The Good, the Bad and the Ugly" FTW), mostly it's a genre that I'm simply not fond of.

Of course, I am quite fond of things involving aliens from outer space.

Mixing these two genres is, in my opinion, a truly inspired premise.  It's too bad, then, that the film adaptation of "Cowboys & Aliens" doesn't seem to reach the full potential of that premise.

The story concerns Jake Lonergan (Daniel Craig) who wakes up one day in the middle of the desert with no memory of who he is, how he got there, or what the strange metal bracelet on his wrist is.  He makes his way to the small town of Absolution, where he runs afoul of local bully Percy Dolarhyde (Paul Dano).  Afterward, he's recognized by Sheriff Taggert (Keith Carridine) who places him under arrest.  Percy's father, former military colonel Woodrow Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford) arrives, accusing Lonergan of robbing one of his stage coaches.

Just then, something truly strange occurs: Flying machines buzz the town, kidnapping a number of the residents.  Lonergan manages to shoot down one of the machines with his bracelet.  Afterward, Lonergan and Dolarhyde, along with a mysterious woman named Ella (Olivia Wilde) who seems to know more than she's saying, Meacham (Clancy Brown) the town preacher, Doc (Sam Rockwell) owner of the saloon, Colorado (Adam Beach) Dolarhyde's right-hand man and an Indian, and other members of Dolarhyde's gang set off into the desert in search of their missing people - including Percy, the sheriff, and Doc's wife.

The thing about "Cowboys & Aliens" is that removing the alien aspects of it, there's the basis for what would be a pretty solid western.  What I mean by this is that "Cowboys & Aliens" is shot and directed much like a straight western film would.  Unfortunately, what this also means is that the film doesn't quite capitalize on the absurdity of its premise. 

The aliens here are simply vicious creatures; they roar and scream and are incredibly fast and strong.  They're just nameless, faceless monsters, without any real character.  Yet, we are told through exposition that they are an intelligent, space-faring race concerned with taking Earth's gold.  That idea, in my mind, is totally awesome.  So many westerns are about gold, either the search for it or the robbing of it.  Indeed, the basis of the antagonism between Lonergan and Dolarhyde is over the theft of a considerable sum of gold coins.

So why not play that up for all its worth?  Instead, the gold aspect of it is just an excuse for some fancy special effects late in the film as the aliens' mining technology uses some kind of funky anti-gravity beams.

Despite this lost potential in the premise, there is a good deal of fun to be had with "Cowboys & Aliens."  Director Jon Favreau has a steady hand; he does a good job making sure that we know what's going on in the action sequences, instead of burying his effects in "shaky-cam"... mostly.  Part of the film's climax takes place in dark underground tunnels, and here things get problematic.  Honestly, though, I was thinking through the entire film that the projection seemed pretty dim - my troubles with this part of the film could simply have been poor presentation in the theatre I was at. 

Though the script drops the ball on the aliens, it definitely gets the western aspects right.  The characters are well formed and the bits and pieces of their backstories that come out are doled out at a good pace, rather than dumped on us in some kind of hefty exposition scene.  Lonergan's memory slowly returns via flashbacks that get longer and more coherent through the film, while Dolarhyde's past is revealed through bits of conversation spread here or there, or one good scene when he tells a story about the first man he ever killed to a young boy.

Craig and Ford give good performances, as well.  Ford, in particular, hasn't seemed this interested in a role in quite some time.  So often recently he seems to be sleepwalking through movies, as though the material just doesn't grab him or like he's not having a good time.  Here, though, he puts some real sneer into his performance, and definitely seems to relish playing such a scoundrel.  It's still nothing on his younger days when he was able to grab the screen and command the audience's attention with just a look and a wink, but it's great to see just a little bit of that old spark in him.

Ella, played by Olivia Wilde, is sort of a nothing character; she's pretty, and Wilde does what she can with what she's given, but she essentially exists to deliver the film's only real scene of explanation.  It's too bad more couldn't be done with her, because the flashes of intrigue we get are pretty cool and her character is clearly capable in combat.

"Cowboys & Aliens" is a decent sci-fi-action-western, but it doesn't capitalize on the half of its premise that would make it a truly inspired piece of filmmaking. In the end, despite liking the film, I came out thinking that I'd almost rather have simply watched a straight western with Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford.  And, of course, I suspect my father enjoyed it a lot more than I did.