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July 29, 2011

Review: Cowboys & Aliens

Posted by on Jul 29, 2011

On Dictionary.com, the second listed definition of mash-up is “a creative combination or mixing of content from different sources.” Clearly we are all familiar with how this translates into the medium of music, but with movies the term is not so easily conjured. Until now, anyway. Cowboys & Aliens is an unabashed film genre mash-up, and it most definitely mixes content from its two source genres: alien and cowboy movies. The question becomes, then: just how creative a combination was it? Find out after the jump.

First, the music in this movie got the job done, and the scenery was rather gorgeous. The pale white stone canyons, green trees, and yellow prairie all looked great, although I think some of the color correction might have had less to do with making the scenery look good and more to do with making Olivia Wilde and Daniel Craig’s eyes stand out as much as possible.  We’ll come back to the aliens in a bit, but I will say that all the CGI and effects were just about seamless. It is a bit odd that, when Daniel Craig wakes up in the desert essentially naked, he’s able to pull clothes off dead men that fit him as if they were tailored, but hey: he’s the hero. He’s gotta look good.

Yeah, uh... he straight up wrecks stuff in this movie.

While correct accents are not always required in order to make good action movies, Craig’s Jake Lonergan fits in to the American West just fine. He is suitably bad-ass, and clearly does not fall into the same category as Cap. He’s more than willing to break the rules, and a few bones, to get the job done, and as we find out about his past, we realize he is far from an angel. This moral aspect of the film is brought to the forefront by Clancy Brown’s character, the practical Preacher Meacham (I swear the rhyming and alliteration there was only half my fault). Right from the get-go, he discusses with Lonergan what makes people good or bad, and gives Lonergan a chance to make up for his past sins. Meanwhile, he’s teaching Sam Rockwell’s timid hotel-owner Doc how to shoot a gun – yeah, I dunno how this works, I think the moral of the story is, “Be as bad-ass as possible.”

And as we’re on the subject of bad-ass, let’s talk about Harrison Ford. He was the reason I wanted to see this movie, and in many ways he did not disappoint. He makes a convincing bad guy – he doesn’t revel in torture, he’s exasperated by it. But damn if he isn’t good at it. Numerous times it is made clear that Ford’s Colonel Dolarhyde is NOT a man you want to mess with. But we eventually see that he’s an embittered war veteran with a soft side for anyone who comes close to being a son to him. And a lot of people come close to being a son to him. In addition to his actual son, there are two other people to whom Ford is a father-figure. I’m not sure why there had to be three different people in the cast to help characterize Ford as a Father Deep Down, as it clutters up what is otherwise a relatively economical action plot. But we as the audience do get the message.

Scary dude in this one, but deep down, he's pretty much always Indy.

Craig also has not one but two love interests, which again makes for a somewhat crowded character list. This film becomes especially hard to keep track of, given the large crowds needed to compose a whole town of townsfolk, plus a whole band of thieves and a whole tribe of Native Americans (BTW, I’m using Native Americans whenever possible, and Indians whenever I need to make it clear that this group is functioning as part of a genre formula). But we get to see Lonergan as the romantic hero, the devoted but torn lover, and the avenging angel. This movie definitely took the shotgun approach when it comes to connecting with an audience – give them every single type of relationship and hope that you make that connection through one of them. I’d have liked to see a more narrow focus on a few better-crafted characters, honestly, but that would have gotten in the way of the cowboys… & aliens.

Mannequin? Maaaaaybe.

Olivia Wilde gets her own section of this review not because of her performance, which was as semi-robotic and wooden as I’ve come to expect. That was all well and good when she was playing a computer program in Tron: Legacy, but it becomes tiring. I single her out because, when her true identity is revealed, it’s kinda dumb. It’s not terribly well explained, and it even problematizes the romance angle with Craig. I…didn’t really like it. But that’s okay, because she helped Craig & Co. stage that awesome battle in the second half of the movie. Actually, in order to balance out this section, I’ll add that I really wish Sam Rockwell got more screen time, because he was as great in this movie as he is in every movie. I love that man… ‘s work.

So let’s get down to the important part, shall we? The aliens were really quite well done, visually. They had numerous different anatomical components, but none were useless or unexplained. The teeth, the extending appendages, the claws; everything held together quite well. And these were some no-nonsense, scary aliens. No need to sympathize, just shoot the damn things before they bite your neck. The second half of the film is almost entirely dedicated to the final epic battle between the united cowboys and Indians and the mean old aliens. There were so many great take-downs, so many heroic/tragic/triumphant moments for each character. Spears, claws, shotguns, arrows, knives, lasers, pistols, dynamite, more lasers – this is exactly what you came to see. At least, I hope this is what you came to see. If you came to see a serious period piece, you are going to leave the theater disappointed.

The aliens were as savage as possible. But then, of course, since this is an alien movie, the mundane nature of their revealed motive (I won’t ruin it) makes them far more like humans than we would like to consider. But then, since it’s also a Western, the aliens come to symbolize the disruptive nature of the future and progress and how that changes society. Like railroads did to the old West. Like aliens did to… well, really any society on Earth in any alien movie. Honestly, there was a lot going on in this movie – a lot of sources combined and mixed together, as defines a mash-up – but was it done creatively? Eh. A lot of the tropes weren’t terribly original, from either genre, and putting them together certainly did highlight some of the similarities and common themes. But even with the novel combination of the two genre settings, it wasn’t anything brilliantly new. It was, however, a boat-load of fun, and I highly recommend keeping it on your summer blockbuster list. Just maybe not on your Oscar nominee list.