“Cowboys & Aliens” has one of those high-concept titles that tells you exactly what you’re going to get. Just like “Snakes on a Plane” had snakes on a plane, “Cowboys & Aliens” has cowboys and aliens. It should have been a cool mish-mash of Western and sci-fi genres, but, again, like “Snakes on a Plane” worked better as a joke on paper. Based loosely on a graphic novel published by Platinum Studios, “Cowboys & Aliens” had all the makings of a successful summer blockbuster. It had two renowned leading men together for the first time in Daniel Craig and Harrison (James Bond and Indiana Jones!). It had a talented director with a proven track record in Jon Favreau (“Iron Man”). Steven Spielberg, Ron Howard, and Brian Grazer were among the producers. Credited screenwriters included Roberto Orci & Alex Kurtzman (“Transformers”), Damon Lindelof (“Lost,” “Star Trek”), Mark Fergus & Hawk Ostby (also of “Iron Man”), and Steve Oedekerk (“Kung Pow: Enter the Fist”), who was attached to write and direct way back in 1997 when the studio was approaching the project with a more comedic take.
“Cowboys & Aliens” opens with an unidentified man (Craig) awakening in the desert with no memory of who he is or where he came from. There’s also a bizarre bracelet attached to his wrist. After killing a trio of assailants, he makes his way to the small town of Absolution where we learn he is a wanted outlaw named Jake Lonergan. The whole town lives in fear of local cattle baron, Col. Woodrow Dolarhyde (Ford), whose sniveling son, Percy (Paul Dano), has also arrived to drunkenly shoot up the place and bully the barkeep Doc (Sam Rockwell). When the Colonel learns Percy and Lonergan have been arrested, he rides into Absolution with the intent of taking them both. Just as the six-shooters are about to be drawn, mysterious lights flash in the sky. The aliens have arrived on crab-like vessels destroying everything below and snatching up innocent people left and right. Among those taken are Percy, Sheriff Taggart (Keith Carradine), and Doc’s wife Maria (Ana de la Reguera). Lonergan discovers his bracelet is actually an advanced weapon capable of detecting the aliens and destroying their ships.
Lonergan and Dolarhyde reluctantly form a posse to rescue their people and stave off the alien invasion. Among their group include Doc, Dolarhyde’s Native American servant Nat Colorado (Adam Beach, the Sheriff’s grandson Emmett (Noah Ringer), the gruff reverend Meacham (Clancy Brown), and a mysterious woman named Ella (Olivia Wilde). Eventually they are all forced to team up with a tribe of Apaches and a band of ruthless outlaws in a final showdown with the extraterrestrials.
The film starts with a strong first act mimicking all the standard tropes of the Western with the taciturn hero and Mexican standoffs. Favreau does his best to ground the story in some semblance of reality even after the outlandish introduction of space invaders. Then, things start going off the rails. The momentum built up at the beginning drops into a second act lull as the plot takes its time to develop its thinly drawn characters. The narrative is clumsily dotted with flashback sequences of Lonergan’s fuzzy past. Ford is initially cast against type as a gruff and slightly racist antagonist, but he’s Harrison Ford and can’t stay that way the whole movie. He’s significantly softened with two cheesy subplots of Dolarhyde acting as a surrogate father to Nat and Emmett. The movie also gets taken down a notch with the early loss of Paul Dano, who served as an excellent whipping boy to Craig’s Lonergan. Despite her insane gorgeousness, Olivia Wilde appears only as a functionary character to deliver helpful exposition and act as a deus ex machine to defeat the aliens. Also wasted are great character actors like Keith Carradine, Walt Goggins, and Clancy Brown.
Favreau is a solid director with a knack for handling large ensembles, but he’s not the flashiest when it comes to action. As exemplified in both “Iron Man” films, Favreau’s finales tend to build up strong and then fizzle out towards the end. “Cowboys & Aliens” suffers from an anti-climatic finish as the final battle between the humans and aliens becomes monotonous and unremarkable.
The video is presented in 1080p with an aspect ratio of 2.40:1. “Cowboys & Aliens” may not be a great movie, but it receives a phenomenal treatment in high definition. The transfer is flawless with sparkling picture quality. The colors are bold and bright from the hot orange of the explosions to the cold pupils of Daniel Craig’s baby blues. You can really see the dust and dirt caked onto the boots and clothes of the characters.
The audio is presented in DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1. The sound quality is equally stunning with ear-splitting effects from the laser blasts of the spaceships and the old-fashioned revolvers.
The Blu-Ray includes an audio commentary track with Jon Favreau, who doesn’t really discuss the tepid reception the film received. Instead, he talks about what drew him to the production, drawing inspiration from sources like Sergio Leone and Steve McQueen, and working with such a fantastic cast.
Igniting the Fire: The Making of Cowboys & Aliens(40:12) is a five-part behind-the-scenes documentary that shows us how the filmmakers broke the script, gathered their cast, built the sets, and created the aliens and special effects sequences.
Fans of “Dinner for Five” will dig Conversations with Jon Favreau, a series of featurettes with the director interviewing the cast and crew. With Daniel Craig (14:50), Favreau speaks to him not just about “Cowboys & Aliens,” but his time as James Bond as well. Too short, but still enjoyable is his sit-down with Harrison Ford (19:01) where they discuss Ford’s start in acting, “Star Wars,” and “Indiana Jones.” Olivia Wilde (10:48) talks to Favreau about falling off a horse, “Tron Legacy,” and her charity work in Haiti. Favreau also meets with Steven Spielberg, Brian Grazer & Ron Howard (14:19), who discuss their approaches to making movies while Spielberg talks about his memorable meeting with John Ford. Favreau sits down with writers Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci (6:44), who discuss their start with Dreamworks. Damon Lindelof (14:20) talks to Favreau about “Lost,” dealing with the network and his collaborations with JJ Abrams.
Universal’s U-Control features picture-in-picture bonus material about the making of the movie and Second Screen allows access to these same extras on your mobile device, PC or tablet. This combo pack also includes a DVD version and a code for both a Digital Copy and Ultraviolet Copy.
Universal President Ron Meyer recently gave a talk at the Savannah Film Festival where he copped to many of the studio’s failings with flops like “The Wolfman” and “Land of the Lost.” “Cowboys & Aliens” was among those box office failures that Meyer singled out. He was quoted as saying, “‘Cowboys & Aliens’ wasn’t good enough…it took, you know, ten smart and talented people to come up with a mediocre movie.” That hits the nail right on the head.
While classic Westerns like “The Searchers” served as inspiration, the wooden dialogue and silly plot contrivances of “Cowboys & Aliens” are more reminiscent of the B-movie productions of Roger Corman. There is an underlying irony beneath the pedestrian narrative about our nation’s history of genocide and Manifest Destiny, but don’t think for an instance this movie is an allegory for American imperialism. “Cowboys & Aliens” isn’t a game changing genre bender, but the epitome of forgettable and mindless summer entertainment.