Theatrical release: 07/29/2011 DVD Date: 12/06/2011
Rating: PG-13 Running Time: 118 minutes
Note(s): Screenplay adapted from the graphic novel Cowboys & Aliens by Andrew Foley and Fred Van Lente, from a concept by Scott Rosenberg.
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Review: While watching Cowboys & Aliens, what struck me most often was how many of the scenes I had seen before. Not exactly, of course, but close enough that I could readily recall the original source. And that is probably the most disappointing aspect to the film, that there is really nothing original about it, that the director simply recreated a sequence of previously staged scenes from television and film and called it a day. I suppose one could make a party game out of it, to see how many people recognize this or that scene from this or that television series or movie. I'll start off by saying that the following shows are faithfully represented in Cowboys & Aliens, right down to camera angles and lighting: Alien (of course) and any of its sequels, Armageddon, Jaws (a bit of a stretch maybe, but you'll know what I'm talking about when it happens), Raiders of the Lost Ark, at least two Clint Eastwood westerns, and no less than four episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Some of this is no doubt intentional — paying homage to the film's and storyline's roots, as it were — but much of it comes off as simply lazy filmmaking.
Speaking to the storylineline, there isn't much to it. I haven't read the graphic novel, from which the movie has been adapted, but the plot is as simple as aliens attack a remote Arizona town in the late 19th century, folks set aside their differences to save their town, the lone stranger rides off into the sunset at the end. There is little suspense, absolutely no thrills, and lots of unanswered plot-related questions here. Though the screenwriters definitely deserve some of the blame, that the film fails to live up to its potential is primarily the fault of the director, Jon Favreau, and his listless direction.
With one significant exception, the casting is adequate. Of note, and in particular, is Harrison Ford's role, which seems to fit him like a well-worn glove. He's probably the best — maybe the only — reason to see this film. The exception is Daniel Craig, who seems totally miscast here and completely out of his element. Though I've never found him to have a very wide range, Craig is a decent actor when given a chance. And I don't think he was given a chance. In fact, I don't think Favreau understood what Craig's character was supposed to be, and though he appears in just about every scene he's completely forgettable.
Another problem is the pacing. I get that Jake Lonergan has no memory of how he came to be alone in the desert with a strange, futuristic object attached to his wrist. I also get that he has to not show any weakness in the face of adversity. But the first 30 minutes of Cowboys & Aliens explores this internal conflict, a subject that was adequately addressed during the few minutes before the opening credits rolled. For what is supposed to be an action thriller, it's a really, really, really slow way to start. A similar situation arises when Jake begins to recall his relationship with a woman, a woman he is supposed to have killed and the reason he is the subject of a bounty hunt. I get — everyone gets — what really happened to her yet we're subjected to tediously long backstory images of how happy they once were together and that somehow that means something to somebody. What this has to do with saving the town from aliens escapes me.
The bottom line here is that this was a concept that could have worked, and could have been really fun and exciting. In short, Cowboys & Aliens doesn't and isn't.