Cowboys & Aliens (2011)
Directed by Jon Favreau
I’m a huge fan of Jon Favreau - I loved his earlier movies including both Elf and Zathura, and while I wasn’t a huge fan of the sequel, there’s no doubt that the original Iron Man was exactly the shot in the arm that the comic adaptation sub-genre needed back in 2008. His latest, Cowboys & Aliens, has been one of my most anticipated films of this year, and while there is a lot to like about the flick, sadly it comes up a bit short in the end, much like last year’s Iron Man 2.
Cowboys & Aliens starts off a bit feeling like The Bourne Identity meets Army of Darkness - we’re immediately introduced to a mysterious man (Daniel Craig) as he awakens in the middle of the desert with his memory wiped clean. All he has to try and put the pieces together is a strange metallic cuff on his wrist, a faded picture of a beautiful woman and a gaping wound in his side. He manages to make his way to the small town of Absolution, where he finds only a few friendly faces, a lot of trouble and some answers about just what kind of man he used to be.
Favreau uses this time in Absolution (before the alien mayhem begins) to introduce us to some of the key players in the film - the stodgy cattle baron Woodrow Dolarhyde (Ford) and his impetuous son Percy (Dano), level-headed Sheriff Taggart (Carradine), town doctor and pacifist Doc (Rockwell), the ass-kicking Ella Swenson (Wilde), and warm-hearted Preacher Meacham (Brown). Once we get our characters in Cowboys & Aliens established, it doesn’t take long for the aliens to swoop in and cause a lot of chaos and devastation in the small settlement, and by the end of the film we see enemies becoming friends (lawmen, outlaws and Indians, respectively) in order to take on the invaders and save their planet from annihilation.
Unfortunately, what should have been an amazing showdown between humans and aliens ended up feeling a bit underwhelming to me.
Clearly, Favreau respects the ‘old-school’ storytelling approach of Cowboys & Aliens producer Steven Spielberg; however, he never quite nails delivering either a solid western or a solid sci-fi epic in this film - we get a taste of both, but the film just never gets to the level of spectacle you’d be hoping for. There’s really no dramatic tension in the film at all, everyone seems miscast (beyond the always badass Craig) and the third act feels incredibly rushed and formulaic at best. Perhaps Cowboys & Aliens would have had better results in the hands of someone like Clint Eastwood or James Mangold at the helm.
Is Cowboys & Aliens a terrible movie? Not at all. It’s just very average. You can't help but hope for something better than this, especially knowing that Favreau is capable of more as a director.
There are a lot of issues with the pacing and the tone (it’s like they wanted some comedic elements to the story, but nothing is actually funny), but there is still a lot to appreciate. The cinematography work by Matthew Libatique is breathtaking to behold, and the mix of both CG and practical effects makes the aliens in Cowboys & Aliens far more intimidating than anything we saw in Super 8 (and don’t worry, Favreau doesn’t tease you with only glimpses of the aliens either - they get very up close and personal with the cast throughout the film).
The bottom line? Favreau had the opportunity to do something remarkable with Cowboys & Aliens but instead ended up making a movie that feels completely underwhelming once the credits start rolling. While not a terrible experience, it’s one that you should go into with reasonable expectations so that you don’t end up feeling let down once you see it.
2 1/2 out of 5