Science fiction and fantasy                                            

Cowboys And Aliens

directed by Jon Favreau

Cowboys and Aliens poster  

In the gold rush era Wild West a man finds himself in the wild with a bad case of amnesia and sporting a fetching high-tech bangle. Jake Lonergan (Daniel Craig) is handy with his fists and quick on the draw, but he has no idea who he is or where he comes from. When he rides into town he soon gets into trouble for confronting the local bully, a young man called Percy (Paul Dano). Percy terrorises the townspeople with his trigger-happy hotheadedness, but he relies on his father's influence to keep everyone else in line.

After an altercation Jake and Percy are imprisoned, but before they're sent off for trial alien spacecraft appear and attack the town. The flying craft blast the place up and haul off anyone unlucky enough to be caught in the open. Thanks to his wristwear Jake is the only one with an effective weapon to use against these creatures. He's unwilling to get involved in the hunt for the aliens and the people they've carted off. But Colonel Woodrow Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford) is furious about the abduction of his son, and he vows to rescue him. Woodrow isn't a man to be crossed, and he wants Jake to help him find his boy. Then there's Ellen (Olivia Wilde), a determined woman who follows Jake and tries to persuade him to help them.

The story has little to do with the graphic novel of the same name, apart from the fact that there are cowboys and aliens in both. The aliens in this film seem to be stupid, cruel horrors with no inner lives and an excess of rapaciousness. So they offer all the visceral thrills of a good monster movie, with their insectile ships and their hideous alien bodies.

The special effects might have been quite good, if only they'd been more visible. Unfortunately the lighting is very poor in the parts of the movie where aliens appear. It's explained that the aliens are sensitive to sunlight so there's a decent reason for it, but this has the effect of making it really hard to see what's going on. It's one thing to allow the aliens to be a bit mysterious, but when the screen is mostly black and we can't see the expressions of the people running from them it defeats the purpose of making a movie rather than an audio play. Thankfully the visuals improve later on, particularly when we get closer to the alien ship with its glowing internal machines.

Cowboys and Aliens isn't a one-dimensional frightfest in the dark, though. It has interesting characters and it touches on themes such as finding courage, grief, family, accepting ourselves and others, and more. There are some seven writers sharing the credits for this movie, and it shows in the sense that it's not about one really obvious theme, but in this case the extra variety it gives the story means it comes across as slightly more realistic than a more tightly focused narrative might have been, so it's a good thing. Woodrow starts off as a crude bully with a cowardly git of a son who he's often disappointed in. But gradually we get to see another side of this character and the reasons for his aberrant behaviour. However I still found his transformation by the end to be the least credible part of the whole film. And that's taking into account the sheer unlikeliness of the reason the aliens have for crossing the vastness of space to come to Earth.

Jake's role is more of the traditional western hero, the quirky loner who shuns society and shoots fast. His memory comes back to him in flashes, but he has good reasons for wanting to forget his past and ride away. Yet of course he can't go without letting rip with a whole heap of shooting, fighting, and alien-kicking manliness.

I do wonder what the point is of the mindset amongst movie makers that every big budget film must absolutely without exception have at least one instance of snogging. Ellen is an interesting character in her own right, but the romantic progression between her and Jake seems by-the-book forced, and when we learn her secret it makes the whole thing both inexplicable and icky. It's a good job this aspect doesn't take up much screen time.

This is a movie with plenty of boy appeal thanks to tons of action, a hard main character and some nifty lines. But it also gets a good balance between the rough and tumble and showing its protagonists' softer sides, especially when it comes to the way Woodrow treats his Native American friend and the young boy Emmett (Noah Ringer) like substitute sons.

7th February 2012

Film Details

Year: 2011

Categories: Films

  Science fiction

Classification: 12

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3 star rating

Review © Ros Jackson
Read more about Jon Favreau