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USA 2011
Directed by
Jon Favreau
118 minutes
Rated M

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
1 stars

Cowboys & Aliens

Synopsis: It’s Arizona, 1873 and Jake Lonergan (Daniel Craig) stumbles into the run-down mining town of Absolution with no memory of his past and a strange bracelet on his arm. It transpires that he is wanted for murder but just as he’s about to be shipped off to stand trial, the town is attacked by extra-terrestrials who carry off many of the populace. The bracelet turns out to be a mighty powerful firearm and so Lonergan sets out to find them and the explanation for his peculiar predicament.

If you saw Steven Spielberg’s obnoxious Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008) and would like more of the same then Cowboys & Aliens should fit the bill. OK, it was directed by Jon Favreau of Iron Man fame, but Spielberg might as well have helmed this for all the difference it makes. Cowboys & Aliens is literally a studio-made film. It has nine credited scriptwriters, sixteen credited producers of one stripe or another (Spielberg gets an executive producer guernsey, Ron Howard and Brian Grazer are credited as producers, and so on). It’s also a tedious re-hash of a lot of other popcorn films, many of which Spielberg has had a hand in, and is bereft of even a scintilla of originality. Being shut stark-naked in a 44 gallon drum with someone beating on it with an iron bar constantly for 2 hours is probably a worse experience. But only just.

The genre mash-up, as is baldly announced by this film’s title, has long been the domain of the B-movie. Movies with titles such as Frankenstein and the Space Monster or Robinson Crusoe on Mars, were staples of drive-ins and small town cinemas through the 1950s to the mid-1960s. They and their ilk were cheaply made films that in certain quarters are now admired for their bad acting, gimcrack production values and silly stories. When you take these elements and rework them with a GDP budget and A-list actors you might make something better or you just might make something bigger and louder and in the process lose all the tongue-in-cheek appeal of those original makeshift ventures. That is exactly what  has happened here. Cowboys & Aliens is big, loud and charmless. But then bigger-and-louder-is-better is the trademark of  Spielbergian multiplex film-making isn’t it?  And in case you doubted that Cowboys & Aliens is a Spielberg film, there’s a kid and a dog in it.

If seeing Spielberg’s name in the opening credits made me anxious, the fact that the film opens with Daniel Craig suddenly lurching out of unconsciousness and into frame (how many times have we seen that shot!) and within a few minutes killing 3 reprobates with their own weapons had me thinking that I would be lucky to find anything salvageable in this experience. There was, and that was Harrison Ford’s curmudgeonly cattle baron. But that was all that there was and it’s not enough to make Favreau’s hack work worth the candle.

For the most part it is the Western aspect that provides the bulk of the film. The basic premise is the familiar Hollywood template of rescuing loved ones from “hostiles” whoever they may be. In this case, unlike John Ford’s The Searchers (1956), which had John Wayne looking for a child taken in an Indian raid and which no doubt provided the basic model for Cowboy & Aliens, here our hero (obdurately stoney-faced, Craig seems to have been to the Arnold Schwarzenegger School of Bodybuilding as Acting) is out to retrieve his wife, or woman, I’m not sure which (not that he knows either as he’s recovering from amnesia), from aliens. For some inexplicable reason they have a lust for gold, which is what they are doing in Arizona in 1873. This is all very Back to the Future Part III (p. S. Spielberg, 1990) except that the aliens are slime-covered, murderous monsters that despite having a hyper-technological culture have no language and behave like the marauding pre-historic creatures from Jurassic Park (d. S. Spielberg, 1993). This of course requires the hero and his helpmates to wipe them out with extreme prejudice. Woohoo!!

Although the aliens have firepower of inter-galactic proportions, fortunately Lonergan has a ray gun strapped to his wrist to even the odds. I’m not too sure why the creatures kidnap people (which they do by lassoing them from jet-winged pods!) but like villainous Nazis (cf. Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark d. S Spielberg 1981), they like to experiment on them. If you think all this sounds inane, wait until the last act when the Indians (their omission from the title notwithstanding) arrive to help the white guys and the film’s obligatory eye candy (Olivia Wilde) gets reconstituted in a bonfire before the similarly obligatory good vs evil face-off takes place to the accompaniment of Harry Gregson-Williams' sentimentally bombastic score.

For all its pretension to high-end blockbuster entertainment, Cowboys & Aliens is so banal in both concept and execution as to be of the calibre of film that you’d rent at your DVD store when you have really run out of options. And even then, after it’s all over you won’t be able to avoid the realization that you’ve wasted 2 hours of your life.




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