Western films used to be one of the top genres around. Now, we rarely ever see any and it’s a shame. It’s been said that they aren’t financially successful in today’s motion picture marketplace, with all of the crowds flocking to see digitally enhanced blockbusters at their local multiplexes instead. Last year’s True Grit remake certainly proved that westerns can still pack quite a punch despite their dated structures, and it would be great to see more of them.
The latest film to try to tackle the dusty old west is this week’s big release, Cowboys & Aliens. Based on a graphic novel, it’s a mixture of a cowboy western, an alien invasion film and an action movie. It’s an expensive attempt to bring the masses to the theatres over the final weekend in July, by appealing to their love of monster flicks, over-the-top action and explosions. Even if an average western isn’t successful these days, it has the chance to draw attention if it’s mixed in with something else. Sounds like a great idea, right? Sort of.
With Jon Favreau at its digitally enhanced helm, the film centres around a small mining town whose inhabitants are being captured by aliens. Their hope rests upon an amnesiac (Daniel Craig) who has wandered into town after waking up on the scorching desert sands, with a strange but badass-looking bracelet on his arm. He knows nothing about his past life, recent life-changing events or the reason as to why his abdomen is bleeding from a strange-looking incision which looks to have been cauterized. In fact, the only thing that has remained inside of his consciousness is his ability to fight, with a gun or anything else at hand. That’s a good thing considering that’s the one thing the townsfolk need most – someone who isn’t afraid to lead them to battle, with great aim and a strong punch.
Over the course of its two hour run-time, Craig’s character struggles to piece together fragmented memories and dastardly accusations put upon him. This story is as much about him finding peace and clarity as it is about the town fighting back against the alien invaders who threaten its livelihood. There’s more character study entwined into this than you’d expect, as it’s not just limited to our main protagonist. One thing that this movie did a good job with was establishing its characters, providing an interesting assortment of thrown-together heroes, all with their own motives and personalities. However, though they’re well-fleshed out, I found it difficult to become emotionally invested in them.
Cowboys & Aliens is a summer blockbuster, first and foremost. It’s not an incredibly well-written and acted Oscar nominee. The name pretty much tells you what to expect, and that is essentially what you get. The film has many elements of a traditional western, taking on the iconic visual style and general structure. That is, until all Hell breaks loose and the aliens sweep in with their explosive turrets blazing. What starts off feeling like something we’re used to alters its form into something completely new and different after the first thirty minutes or so.
Joining Daniel Craig on his adventure throughout the desert plains are Harrison Ford and the beautiful Olivia Wilde, who portray the two other main characters of the film. She’s the pretty damsel with something to hide and he’s the man whose cattle money keeps the town afloat, even though his son constantly tries to ruin that by getting drunk on free liquor and shooting up the town. Joining them is a pretty good cast in name, including gritty Keith Carradine, Paul Dano, Sam Rockwell and former Canadian soap star, Adam Beach. It’s an interesting mixture of noticeable faces, though the acting is a bit of a mixed bag.
When you enter the theatre to watch a summer blockbuster, you usually need to check your analytical brain at the door. It’s to be expected that the acting will be mediocre at best and that the action will outweigh the dramatic quality or script integrity. Though, with a cast like this, I expected to see something a bit different that defied this logic. Daniel Craig was pretty sound as the powerful amnesiac, but I was disappointed in some of the other performances – specifically Harrison Ford‘s and even Sam Rockwell‘s to an extent. Neither were terrible, but I felt that Rockwell under-achieved and that Ford struggled to find a suitable way to portray his gruff character. His performance lacked consistency, sometimes going past the over-acting threshold and, being a bit of the opposite at others.
Although the script is relatively well-written and does a good job of creating a believable world amidst the unbelievable, it needed an identifiable factor. Its characters were somewhat interesting, but I was never able to identify with them, or become emotionally involved. Perhaps it was because of the film’s campy nature and the odd performance miscue. Whatever it was, it prevented me from actually caring. I wanted to see the gang achieve its goal of saving those who were kidnapped, but it didn’t bother me when one or the other would perish in battle. That being said, Jon Favreau did a pretty good job in the director’s chair, creating a visceral experience that has just as many roots in the wild west as it does in outer space.
Going in, I wanted to really enjoy this movie. It’s always enjoyable to enter a theatre for a fun ride. Even though my favourite films are dramatic masterpieces and classic Hitchcockian thrillers, I also enjoy the odd big budget blowout. Those that are done well can be very entertaining. Cowboys & Aliens had a lot of things going for it, including a cool cast and a director whom I happen to be a fan of. However, I found that it was a ho-hum experience which had some underlying issues that prevented my full enjoyment, emotional involvement and interest from being doted upon its characters’ plight.
Though it has some moments and a few decent set-pieces, Cowboys & Aliens isn’t everything that it could have been. I didn’t hate it, but I also didn’t love it. To me, the whole experience was a mixture between mild entertainment, underwhelming disappointment and a film that failed to live up to its lofty goals. It’s mediocre, but mildly enjoyable and not a bad way to spend two hours in an air conditioned theatre, avoiding the sweltering summer heat. Just don’t go in expecting too much, because you’re not going to get anything more than an average film. It’s too bad, but that’s what I got from it, though I certainly wish I would have enjoyed myself more.