Wednesday, 1 April 2015

Cowboys & Aliens (Film Review)

Damn, it's been a while hasn't it. For a blog which started out primarily covering films, we've certainly seen just about everything but them over the past couple of years. Time to correct that.

One of the films made as he was riding the success of Iron Man, John Favreau's weird west creation is an odd beast indeed. Retaining some obvious love, great ideas and a brilliantly assembled cast of talented actors, it still just about failed to hit that mark some people wanted. Some argued that it should have been far more overblown sci-fi schlock, but personally I think it's because it didn't fully embrace its concept. It's still a good film, but there were a few aspects which needed to be tweaked in order for it to really strike a chord with most audiences.

Set amid the days of the great frontier where the American territories were still being settled, Cowboys & Aliens introduces its tale with a man with no name. Suffering from amnesia and bearing wounds from a weapon of unknown design, he soon reaches the town of Absolution. While initially welcomed by its residents, he soon discovers that he is wanted for crimes he has no memory of, and that something screaming through the night air is in search of humans to enslave...

A good starting premise if ever there was one, and from that short description you can already likely pick out a few famous Western tropes. The film really embraces those and chooses to run with them as best it can, even tipping the hat at those sadly too corny to truly use these days. It's very much a genre piece in every sense of the term, yet it never goes so far to make fun of it for those same qualities. This translates to the sets as much as the script, as the film makes full use of the arid deserts, steep river filled ravines and a ramshackle dying town reliant upon very few sources of money. It takes the time to really show each, and for a genre which has sadly been largely abandoned thanks to over-saturation during the 50s to 70s, it's a welcome return.

The actual characters and ideas themselves are similarly taken from their genre over anything else. We have an (initially) nameless outlaw, a powerful cattle baron, a preacher, a few Native Americans, an honest man in search of his missing wife and a few others. They're not overly deep, but as with most of Orci and Kurtzman's more successful film work, they allow actors the freedom to do most of the heavy lifting. This pays off as Clancy Brown and Harrison Ford in particular seem far more alive and invested in their roles than many other films over the past decade.

The actual battles themselves often have Western elements added in both in terms of the general style of the camera work and action elements. Even with the futuristic flying machines and armoured exoskeletal invaders shrugging off bullets, there's a clear use of the sorts of shots and action you'd expect of a Sergio Leone film. It might be more action packed and faster paced at points, but there's a much more palpable sense of weight to the action and build-up to certain conflicts. It's only towards the end when the film really abandons this, but even then the actions of the characters and the actual set-pieces of the battles still emulate as many elements as possible. It also helps that, even when dipping into elements more worthy of a horror story, the tension and set pieces are closer to what you'd expect of something like The Gunfighter than Aliens.

Now, you've probably noticed that this is all praising one half of the film's title, and with good reason. It's sadly with the alien elements that things gradually fall to bits, for a few reasons. While the Westerns had obvious love and attention put into them in memory of older films, the actual aliens themselves were based on far more modern depictions. Looking more like something which walked out of District 9, they lacked many of the high tech or fantastical elements audiences might have wanted and all too often seemed very minimal in many respects. No guns, no air support, even no real defences to keep the humans at bay when they approach their ship. Everything about them was overly industrial when the story itself really called for something truly old-school with a new spin on it, flying saucers and all. Really, they effectively have a Psychlo plot as their game-plan for crying out loud.

Even without the problems which came from trying to remove the aliens themselves from their roots, another issue arose from how they were utilised. They were kept in the background initially, but as the film wore on less and less of them were seen. It's only towards the final half that audiences catch more than one of them on screen, and even then they simply lack any character to them. The film tries to build them from a horror angle yet the fact it does this and shows them more as a monster than an outright alien who can build a spacecraft. As such, they lack any real distinct charm and seem all too often like an obstacle just in their way, and even atop that they lack any distinct "face" or main villain to serve as the example of their kind to the audience. Well, besides one guy but he's barely in it long enough to really show up.

The other problem which stems from this is that, thanks to this slower burn and pacing, the issue arises in terms of the human characters. Like with the rebooted Star Trek films, they only work and stand out so long as they're moving at a fast enough of a pace to prevent audiences noticing the flaws. In this there's far less of that, so beyond the actors involved there just doesn't seem to be enough to the roles. This is especially hurts Ford's character in terms of giving the audience a reason to really root for him, and it's only through his liability and enjoyment you still really remain invested in him.

Despite all of the issues plaguing this production though, Cowboys & Aliens is relatively okay. It's very much a one night rental film or popcorn flick more than anything else, something to watch and joke at with a few friends and enjoy some of the better aspects of the performances. Even with the weaknesses of the villains or sci-fi elements, the chase sequences were engaging, the action fun and it does a good job of keeping you guessing behind certain character motivations at times. It's hardly a memorable film at the end of the day, but there's certainly far worse ways to spend an evening than watching this. If you're ever in the mood for something a little different from usual but relatively easy going, give this one a look.

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