Thursday, 18 August 2011

'Cowboys & Aliens' Review

'Cowboys & Aliens' (dir: Jon Favreau, 2011) Cert: 12A

Some things pair together beautifully; Tea and Biscuits, Bangers and Mash, Tom and Jerry, whilst some other things sound slightly disjointed - 'Cowboys & Aliens', the latest film from 'Iron Man' (2008) director Jon Favreau falls into that category. After seeing multiple trailers throughout the year, I couldn't understand why Paramount/DreamWorks were selling this as a 'serious' picture; surely a picture with this title must be slightly tongue-in-cheek or a B Movie right? 

 After waking up in the middle of nowhere with no recollection of himself or his past and a strange device attached to his arm, Jake Lonergan (Daniel Craig) rides into town. The year is 1873 and the place is Arizona. The town do not take kindly to this sudden stranger and soon enough Colonel Woodrow Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford) is called in to sort things out. Suddenly, the town is attacked by extra-terrestrial 'demons' that destroy buildings and abduct locals. Now Lonergan and Dolarhyde must set aside their differences and saddle up with fellow members of the town including the mysterious and inquisitive Ella (Olivia Wilde) to find these invaders and stop them once and for all.

 Firstly to answer my opening question, the reason why the trailers made the film look serious is because it is. The idea that Cowboys fighting off Aliens is comedic or satirical is completely false; Favreau's feature expects viewers to believe and become immersed in this world rather than sit there laughing at it. My reaction to this prior to watching was turned off and slightly negative, but upon watching the feature, one has had a huge change of heart. Despite being completely far-fetched and ludicrous, 'Cowboys & Aliens' is a mighty fun and mighty fine summer blockbuster.

 Fundamentally the film is a Western with a mix of Sci-Fi rather than being a hybrid genre of the two. The setting is the Old West, it's lead characters are the Cowboys and the Aliens are the villains. Like many Western films, some stereotypes are used such as the moody lit saloon and the crooked law enforcement, but as a whole, 'Cowboys & Aliens' is far from stereotypical and excels through it's great ambition and excellent execution.

 Favreau clearly cared about this picture and it shows - from the insignificant details to the monumental action, this has his signature all over it. What is unfamiliar for the filmmaker however is how tough the film is. It opens with a scene of violence and this film travels right through it's duration. Bottle smashing, face bashing and throat ripping are all ingredients to this mix and at some points I did think the 12A certificate might have been a mistake. The violence in the film is at the top level to grant a 12A; it's not really violent enough for a 15 but some young viewers might be a little shocked at some of it's brutality.

Still from 'Cowboys & Aliens' (dir: Jon Favreau, 2011)
 Having said that, the film isn't just a parade of dead bodies and CGI, it has characters that are far more constructed than you may be led to believe. Each of the main characters has a point, a history and a significant impact to the narrative progression. This is not a film like say 'Limitless' where they stuck Robert De Niro in just to boost sales. Craig, Ford, Wilde and Sam Rockwell et al are all relevant and essential to telling this tale. As well as a decent set of characters, the film has rich themes which certainly surprised - a big focus point is that of the Cowboys and the Red Indians. Thoughts of racism and power are shed upon and merge beautifully into the rather bizarre mix giving this blockbuster a big lump of substance as well as visual style.

 The CGI is incredibly strong and entertaining throughout and it's especially nice that it's few and far between. The majority of big action sequences consist mainly of pyrotechnics rather than gallons of computerised pixels but when the technology comes into play, it's used cleverly and productively. As well as this visual flair, the film's strongest imagery comes with it's glorious cinematography which isn't far off Roger Deakins' superior work on 'True Grit' earlier this year. The Western setting looks fantastic; the vast open spaces, the dust-bowl town and the twisted and lifeless foliage that surrounds is quite simply exquisite. 

 The performances are all great with Craig and Ford being spectacular. Lonergan is a gritty, vicious and unsettled man who smokes, smacks people up and gets the job done. He is an interesting protagonist and it's refreshing to see a leading man who is not straight or essentially 'good'. Craig fizzles with sheer brutality but reserved charm and was the perfect casting choice. Ford too is tough as nails and to an extent, Dolarhyde is one of the story's villains. His gruff speech, medieval attitudes towards society and lack of tolerance is greatly portrayed on-screen. It's also amazing just how much energy the man still has, even at 69. Wilde's character of Ella is intriguing, established and sexy. She looks utterly stunning but her looks do not warrant her place, she is a great actress and is certainly getting the right roles. 

 Granted 'Cowboys & Aliens' is not perfect but a film this ambitious and refreshing is certainly worthy of praise and your time; It's exciting, absorbing and massively entertaining, plus it's deeply surprising. This is not a good old fashioned B Movie like 'Godzilla vs. King Kong' (1962), this is a bloody, gritty and muscular feature that's absolute barrels of fun.

It isn't just Rooster Cogburn who has 'True Grit', Craig and co have it too. A brilliant summer escapist epic.

By Chris Haydon

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