Universal // 2011 // 135 Minutes // Unrated
Reviewed by Judge Dan Mancini (Retired) // December 6th, 2011
"What the hell?" -- Colonel Woodrow Dollarhyde
I've never read Scott Rosenberg's Cowboys & Aliens graphic novel, but the synopsis on Wikipedia sounds a heck of a lot more exciting than director Jon Favreau's (Iron Man) disappointing film adaptation. Star-powered and benefitting from a nine-figure budget, Cowboys & Aliens somehow manages not to exploit the genre-crashing awesomeness suggested by its ridiculous title.
The movie opens in 1873 as a wounded amnesiac (Daniel Craig, Casino Royale) awakens in the Arizona desert with a mysterious contraption attached to his wrist. Set upon by outlaws, he soon learns that he's a badass when he whips the armed bandits with his bare hands. Eventually, he stumbles into the dusty town of Absolution where he befriends the local preacher (Clancy Brown, Highlander) and a woman (Olivia Wilde, Tron: Legacy) as mysterious as she is beautiful. The town's sheriff (Keith Carradine, Nashville) identifies the stranger as wanted outlaw Jake Lonergan, but before he can apprehend him Absolution is attacked by alien spaceships. Many of the townsfolk are kidnapped. Lonergan falls in with a posse led by high-powered cattleman and former Confederate officer Colonel Woodrow Dollarhyde (Harrison Ford, Raiders of the Lost Ark), who set out in pursuit of the aliens. A series of high-concept set pieces and predictable turns of plot ensue.
If you'd told me going in that I'd be bored to tears by a movie about cowboys fighting aliens and boasting a cast that includes Harrison Ford, Clancy Brown, Daniel Craig, Keith Carradine, and Sam Rockwell (who plays a befuddled barkeep), I'd have been shocked -- shocked, I tell you. Where did Jon Favreau go wrong? The movie is too slick, too polished by modern technology. In the audio commentary and interviews that supplement the film, Favreau says repeatedly that he wanted the movie to look and feel like a Western that was being intruded upon by elements of science fiction. But it doesn't. Its visual design is characterized by controlled camera moves, precise lighting, computer-enhanced color timing, and professionally crafted sets and costumes. Cowboys & Aliens lacks the grit of the Westerns by Howard Hawkes, John Ford, and Sergio Leone that Favreau clearly wants to evoke. It's nowhere near as dusty and mean as it wants to be.
The cast is very good, but the extravagant production values undermine their work by constantly reminding us that they are major movie stars. Daniel Craig does a solid American accent and is appropriately tough, spending most of the film looking as filthy and disheveled as he does during the back half of the James Bond adventure, Quantum of Solace. But he's never allowed to be the sort of squinty-eyed cool customer popularized by Clint Eastwood during his heyday. The movie's real revelation, though, is Harrison Ford. His performance is so easy and natural it's tempting to underestimate it. But Ford avoids the sort of drawling overreach to which so many actors fall prey when working in Westerns for the first time. He's so good, in fact, you wonder how it is that, other than a few TV shows early in his career, he hasn't done any Westerns. How is it possible that, prior to Cowboys & Aliens, Han Solo was the closest Ford had come to playing a cowboy? It's a shame.
Whatever its stylistic and storytelling flaws, Cowboys & Aliens looks and sounds superb on Blu-ray. Favreau's inability to restrain himself from giving his flick a blockbuster sheen means that the leap to high definition home video renders a gorgeous image with crisp detail, excellent color reproduction, and a minimum of digital artifacts. This 1080p/AVC transfer ensures that you can enjoy every crag and wrinkle in the faces of Craig and Ford. The DTS-HD 5.1 surround mix delivers bright and thunderous audio. It's nearly perfect.
Cowboys & Aliens (Blu-ray) contains both the 119-minute theatrical cut of the movie, as well as a 135-minute extended edition. Honestly, I could barely tell the difference between the two versions of the movie. Disc Two in this set is a DVD copy that also provides access to a downloadable digital copy.
Favreau delivers a detailed and affable audio commentary that delves into all aspects of making the movie. Igniting the Sky: Making Cowboys & Aliens is a 40-minute making-of documentary in six parts. The best of extras (far more entertaining than the movie itself, in fact) is a series of conversations between Favreau and his cast and crew. The segments, which boast a combined running time of 80 minutes, include contributions from actors Craig, Ford, and Wilde; screenwriters Damon Lindelof, Roberto Orci, and Alex Kurtzman; and producers Steven Spielberg, Ron Howard, and Brian Grazer. Anyone who's seen Favreau's IFC television series Dinner for Five knows what to expect in terms of the lively, genial, and funny conversations during the segments.
In addition to those relatively conventional extras, the BD offers Universal's U-Control picture-in-picture option, as well as their Pocket BLU feature, which allows you to watch supplemental material on your laptop or iPad while watching the movie on your television.
The disc is also BD-Live enabled.
Unfortunately, wanting a movie about cowboys battling space aliens to be awesome doesn't make it so. Cowboys & Aliens is a snoozer. The Blu-ray is gorgeous, though.
What the hell, indeed.
Review content copyright © 2011 Dan Mancini; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 2.40:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* DTS 5.1 Surround (French)
* DTS 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 135 Minutes
Release Year: 2011
MPAA Rating: Unrated
* Theatrical Version
* Pocket Blu
* DVD Copy
* Digital Copy
* Official Site