First Contact, Last Stand

Jon Favreau

Daniel Craig
Harrison Ford
Olivia Wilde
Sam Rockwell
Clancy Brown

Cowboys And Aliens opens in the middle of a desert in 1870s New Mexico. A nameless individual [Craig] suddenly jolts awake, franticly begins to analyse his surroundings and after a few minutes, notices a metal bracelet firmly attached to his left wrist. Following a few unsuccessful attempts to detach it, the man becomes distinctly aware of three riders approaching behind him. In an instant, all three men lay unconscious or dead and the stranger suits up and heads to the nearest town. Upon arrival, he meets with a straight-talking preacher [Brown], who stitches up a half-cauterised wound on the stranger’s torso. The stranger then subdues a local rancher’s son only to be recognised by the local Sheriff as wanted outlaw, Jake Lonergan, who locks both men up. Word gets out to the rancher (the only man with any real power or money in town), Woodrow Dolarhyde [Ford], that not only has his son been imprisoned but the man who stole a caravan of gold from him has been arrested too. Dolarhyde rides into town and confronts the Sheriff but before any arrangement can be made, the town is blitzed by a torrent of fire from flying metal ships. Curiously enough, the only thing that can even make a scratch on the attackers is the bracelet clasped to Lonergan’s wrist. With half the town’s folk abducted, the remainder form up a posse and start tracking the origin of the strange craft. Oh and an extremely out-of-place lady [Wilde], armed with a holstered pistol and anachronistic attitude joins up with them.. best not to ask why. Now, I’ve only read a brief synopsis of the 2006 comic and this whole story doesn’t strike me as even remotely close; the only real similarity is the presence of aliens in a Western environment. And with so many contributing studios, producers and writers – all of whom were probably sold on the one-sheet concept, as opposed to the story or the characters – it’s hardly surprising.

Alright, there are three main flaws with this film but they are so fundamental that they more than justify such a low overall score. First off, the performances were all-round terrible; it was like the film of a thousand hollow expressions. The only two individuals who managed to escape with any credibility were Clancy Brown (more on that below) and Sam Rockwell, whose talents were utterly wasted. I suppose the actors aren’t wholly to blame, as their pointless characters were given such cliché and predictable motivations that there was no room to develop any real charm or personality to any of them. Secondly, the aliens were pretty shit. Their hand-to-hand attacks on the human fodder were strangely graphic for a movie rated 12a but due to the shaky-cam and censored framing (essentially to hide anything too grisly) all you could really make out was their inferior design and sub-par CGI. Finally, the writing was pretty dire, sprouting painfully lazy developments: magic Indian juice made me remember stuff, problem solved; you were the son I never had but you’re dead now so I can reprogram the crap son I’ve got, problem solved; leave your high-tech alien weaponry beside me while you perform surgery on me, yoink, problem solved; I’m dying, oh wait, nope, I’m good, problem solved! On top of that, in the heat of a frantic, completely unwinnable battle, there was still time for a tender moment, evidently enough to infuse the previously ineffective Colts and Winchesters with.. I dunno, determination or something, to kill the aliens with one hit. So we have awful acting, cheap looking computer-generated antagonists and sloppy writing – the perfect combination for any cash-hosed summer crap fest.

From a technical perspective, there’s a great deal about this film that actually works quite well. For example, the action sequences are perfectly reasonable albeit still rather underwhelming; Harry Gregson-Williams’ score was equally fitting, neatly combining the typical period guitar picking with pounding orchestral stings; and an entire wealth of praise should be awarded to Favreau for insisting that a Western has no business being filmed or edited in 3D. Also, to offset the potential hammy/campness of the film (and there are several opportunities that could have been exploited in such a way), the whole thing is shot straight. “Aliens, you say? Sure, why not.” For this reason, the Western element is quite impressive, especially in the opening twenty minutes – I personally found the scene in which a drunken Percy Dolarhyde [Paul Dano] starts shooting up the town, more tense than the finale. Unfortunately, what you’re left with is a well-crafted Western with a tacky alien element flimsily bolted on.

I’ve seen a lot of reviewers complain that the two genres simply don’t cross, that trying to match them up felt forced and, to a certain degree, they have a point. However, if you’ve seen Joss Whedon’s Firefly or Serenity, you’ll know just how wrong that statement is (in the right hands, of course). By taking the principal characters, values and pioneering aspects out of Westerns and into space, the pairing seems completely natural but by forcing one into the other, we basically end up with Wild Wild West trying to take itself seriously.

Release Date:
19th August 2011

The Scene To Look Out For:
**Spoilerific plot points within**
Ok, so one of the big twists is that Olivia Wilde’s character is in fact some sort of alien (ooooooooh) but the way we discover this is fucking absurd. Wounded by an alien attack, Jake carries.. whatever her name is.. Ella, through the desert but she still dies. Then they’re captured by Indians and facing death when one of the tribe throw Ella’s body onto a fire. Two minutes later after a great deal of swirling lights, she somehow manages to regenerate, stark naked and bleat a substantial amount of exposition. It’s pretty stupid but the most annoying part was the fact that she says, “I wanted to tell you but I didn’t know if I could heal this form” You didn’t know? Well, good thing chucking you on a pyre worked out grand!

Notable Characters:
As stated earlier, Clancy Brown does a really stand-out job with his grizzled, gun-wielding preacher, only to be killed off in the first quarter. Granted, Sam Rockwell did well with what he had to work with but killing off the best character, leaving us with an invincible loyalty-switching dog and that bloody kid from The Last Airbender? Lame.

Highlighted Quote:
“Get this through your thick Indian skull: those stories were for my son, not you”

In A Few Words:
“Trite affair that sullies a potentially half-decent Western with a ridiculous, underwhelming science fiction element”

Total Score: