Cowboys & Aliens Review

It’s The Wild Wild West Part 2, as the sci-fi and western genres mix with dubious results.

For the second time in a month, producer Steven Spielberg brings to the big screen a sci-fi pic set in the past focussing on aliens who enjoy a spot of kidnapping. Rather than the 1979 setting of Super 8 however, this time we’re in the Wild West. Jon Favreau’s adaptation of the graphic novel of the same name (which actually started life as a film script – a case of Hollywood eating itself?) boasts an eye-catching title that suggests a myriad of tantalising possibilities, none of which are satisfactorily realised. Tame when it should be daring, dull when it should be exciting, this strangely inert adventure wastes the unique casting of both James Bond (Daniel Craig) and Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford – duh). Chalk up another entry in the list of this summer’s blockbuster disappointments.

1875, New Mexico: a stranger (Craig) wakes up in the middle of nowhere with no memory of who he is and with a strange metallic device strapped to his wrist. To his dismay it soon emerges that he is a wanted man, and in the town of Absolution he is imprisoned. Before he can be sent off to the courts however, the town comes under attack from an enemy with a frightening array of firepower and the ability to fly, kidnapping various citizens including the son of local cattle baron Dolarhyde (Ford). The stranger, together with a posse of men from the town, set off to discover the whereabouts of those who were taken and find out who the mysterious assailants really are.

It’s interesting to compare C&A (there’s an unfortunate acronym) with the other sci-fi genre-splicing movie released earlier this year, Attack the Block. Joe Cornish’s social drama-cum-creature feature successfully straddled both genres with engaging characters, timely social commentary and some interesting wrinkles, like those memorably vicious aliens (it has also taken on a completely new relevance since the English riots earlier this month).

Cowboys & Aliens, on the other hand, does very little of interest with either of its genres. The Wild West photography and production values look oddly cheap and artificial, no better than a TV movie of the week; Ford and Leone can rest easy in their graves. The same goes for the script and its archetypal characters: there’s the mysterious loner, the arrogant cattle baron, the ineffectual sheriff, the alcoholic doctor, blah blah blah. This needn’t be a problem with westerns, of course: there are certain boxes that one expects to be ticked – that’s part of the fun. But to follow the formula so slavishly and unimaginatively simply looks lazy.

So much for the cowboys; how about them thar aliens? You might expect Favreau, with two Iron Man films as well as the unjustly neglected Zathura under his belt, to get things right here. But no: closely resembling the Gill-man from Creature from the Black Lagoon, these aliens are just as uninteresting as their cowboy foes. Even their technology looks like it’s been nicked from a Marvel set. The action is fun on occasions – the climax threatens to become mildly exciting – but no more so than an average blockbuster.

The whole film has an air of ‘can’t really be bothered’. Craig and Ford both look slightly uncomfortable in their roles, though it’s Ford who comes out best; those craggy features and that growling voice should have been put to good use in a western years ago. Craig has the right look for the part but where he felt immediately at home as Bond, here his heart just doesn’t seem to be in it. The score by Harry Gregson-Williams sounds very little like a western score; it’s almost as though the film was slightly embarrassed by its setting. In which case, why bother at all? There was a highly enjoyable family adventure to be had from the title, but the end result is a damp squib with little life and even less imagination.

Gavin Midgley

Updated: Aug 22, 2011

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