Due to a parade of wonderful Film Festival screenings your correspondent was only able to get to one of this week’s new releases (and, thanks to the Empire’s failure to open on Sunday morning nearly didn’t make that one) so Glee: the 3D Concert Movie and rom-com Something Borrowed will have to wait until next week’s column. I’m sure you are breathless with anticipation. But this means that Cowboys & Aliens — Jon Favreau’s third comic book adaptation in a row after Iron Man 1 and 2 — gets the full review treatment. Does it deserve it? We shall see.
The scene is frontier New Mexico between the end of the Civil War and the arrival of the railroad. A tiny little town, built for a gold rush that never materialised, is only kept alive because of grumpy Harrison Ford’s cattle business. In the desert outskirts Daniel Craig wakes up with amnesia, a strange metal bracelet and an ability with unarmed combat that soon scores him a horse, a gun and a dog.
Turns out he is Jake Lonergan, the meanest hombre west of the Pecos and there’s a bounty on his head. But before Sherriff Keith Carradine and the US Marshalls can bring him to justice the town is attacked by flying saucers (NB not actually saucer-shaped) and half the population is carried off into the sky by (what the remaining townsfolk can only describe as) demons. It’s obviously a roundup (a familiar concept to everyone) but what for?
Ford raises a posse and needs Craig’s help — he’s handy with his fists and a gun and that bracelet turns out to be an alien weapon and the only thing that can shoot one of the aliens down. With the help of an Indian scout (Adam Beach) and a mysterious yet beautiful pioneer woman (Olivia Wilde) they track one of the (green-blooded) varmints hoping to find their lost loved ones before it’s too late.
As you may be able to tell from my summary, Cowboys & Aliens is full of Western clichés but that might be enough for those young people who haven’t been much exposed to them — for a lot of kids Rango earlier this uear might well have been the first Western they’d ever seen. For the rest of us though it’s a bog-standard aliens-have-come-to-mine-the-crap-out-of-our-planet movie with the six-shooter setting as the only novelty.
At just over two hours (a duration dictated by the need to get full value out of every Industrial Light & Magic effect as well as the Giger-Alien-inspired slimy creatures), this is a film that wears its responsibilities heavily. Fully three studio logos open the picture and you can tell there’s a lot at stake — the only sign that this is a Favreau film is the usual lack of control over his supporting cast. Paul Dano threatened to be a ham in Little Miss Sunshine and There Will Be Blood but goes full pork in this as Ford’s spoilt only child.
As for the leads, Craig is reliable enough and certainly looks the part. He’s worked out that real movie stars have a masochistic streak and now gets the bejaysus kicked out of him at every opportunity. Ford’s million dollar smile lights up the screen on the only occasion he rations it out but otherwise is in the same grumpy old man mode we saw a lot of Morning Glory earlier this year.
The most striking success story is Harry Gregson-Williams’ excellent score, combining classic Western motifs with big sweeping sci-fi elements as well as actually having a melody of its own — an originality missing from the rest of the picture.
Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 17 August, 2011.