Cowboys & Aliens Blu-ray
When George Lucas merged the genres of sci-fi and Western in a little cinematic venture called Star Wars, it became clear that he was onto something. He managed to draw out the subtleties in the genres, lace them together to support a coherent narrative that gently moved the plot along, and relegate the heavy-handed trappings of the loaded motifs themselves to the backdrop of his story. While no one will ever accuse me of being the biggest George Lucas fan on the face of the planet, I happily recognize that he possesses an understanding of metaphor and even an occasional appreciation for subtlety.
After seeing Cowboys & Aliens I’m not sure I can say the same thing about director Jon Favreau. His genre-bending vision clarifies the extent of his common ground with Lucas: he has an idea of what an alien should look like, and he knows what a cowboy is. About everything else he brings to the screen creates a whirlwind of thematic chaos that is only as engaging as the actors are able to make it. Almost a third of the way into Cowboys & Aliens, I still thought it might have the good graces to turn out to be a comedy. No such luck.
Near the little Western town of Absolution, a haggard-looking former outlaw, Jake (Daniel Craig), wakes up in the desert with no memory of who he is or how he got there. He is wearing a mysterious metal device on his arm that looks like a weapon and is decidedly not manmade. He seems intent on keeping to himself, but can’t resist leaping to the rescue when a young troublemaker (Paul Dano) — the son of the toughest cowpoke in town (Harrison Ford) — starts publicly harassing a timid saloon owner (Sam Rockwell) and his wife (Ana de la Reguera).
This lands him in a spot of trouble, causing the sheriff (Keith Carradine) and a mysterious woman named Ella (Olivia Wilde) to take notice of him. Before too long, aliens (you guessed it!) attack the town, “lassoing” (yes) several frantic townspeople and taking them away in spaceships. Jake’s lethal bracelet is the only thing that can drive the villains back and keep them from obliterating Absolution.
In the hodgepodge of aimless action sequences that follow, the cowboys pursue the aliens back to their big metal lair to rescue those who have been abducted. In the process, Jake finds out who he really is, Ella reveals who she really is, and a lot of people change who they’ve already established themselves to be when the plot demands it. The only character that really arcs is Ford’s curmudgeonly ol’ cattle baron, which merely testifies to the actor’s skill in salvaging even the most mediocre of roles.
By and large, the actors do manage to redeem parts of the movie here and there, including Craig, who, despite seeming a bit too polished for the grizzled genre (the Western half of it, that is), makes up for his distinguished reputation by sporting some shockingly deep wrinkles and a weary pair of baby blues. In the meantime, Ford, Carradine, and even Rockwell fold pretty seamlessly into the cowboy convention, though you can still see some light shine through the cracks if you hold them up to the standards of … well … a real Western.
Dano, who is usually quite convincing as either victim or villain, is about as dynamic in this role — in which he plays both — as the gigantic green monsters — ahem, aliens — are. Wilde, too, falls flat. Whether it’s the single facial expression she can’t seem to part with or her unwillingness to feign even the vaguest hint of an accent, her character seems more out of place than the spaceships themselves. Sadly, her onscreen chemistry with romantic lead Craig neither makes the story more convincing nor has the power to bring you out of it, which could be a welcome retreat.
But hold up. Before you go off thinking that Cowboys & Aliens will be the most wasteful Blu-ray expenditure of your life, there’s one more thing. I must admit that Favreau — blessedly and somewhat unexpectedly, considering his other shortcomings — manages to occasionally capture the kind of tongue-in-cheek flavor that you would expect from a film with this title. If you pay attention, you’ll find a couple of well-timed nods to absurdity that inspire genuine laughs, as when the flabbergasted townspeople insist that it’s demons who have abducted their loved ones, or when the amnesiac Jake asks an ogling Ella upon first meeting her, “Do I know you?” Yes, it is a little disappointing that the film isn’t simply replete with these clever moments, opting instead to shoot for serious, intense scenes like a heavy-handed homage to Alien 3, featuring an alien silhouette breathing into the face of a terrified human.
Of course, it’s quickly becoming a tradition with new Blu-ray releases to pack enough special features and interactive experiences onto the disc to whet the appetite of the most obsessive fan and most enthusiastic technophile. The Blu-ray set includes a regular DVD as well as the Blu-ray disc, with both theatrical and extended versions of the film. Extras include the expected feature-long commentary by Favreau, a five-chapter segment, “Making of Cowboys & Aliens,” which is mainly worth watching to learn about the conceptual background behind this genre-bending brainchild, and a series of segments entitled “Conversations with Jon Favreau,” in which the director sits down with his fellow actors and producers (Steven Spielberg, Ron Howard, Brian Grazer) to systematically stroke their egos (though the Ford interview has its moments).
While this is all fodder for the fans, the technophiles will be more into the sophisticated “Universal’s Second Screen” feature, which allows you to maneuver through the film and interact with the movie from your mobile device or tablet when you download a free app. You can bookmark your favorite scenes and later jump directly to them at any time during playback from the menu bar, or you can activate the U-Control feature, which gives you cues when extra tidbits about the film become available. If you’re confused by any of these bells and whistles, you can refer to the How-To Guide that’s built into the menu. Or you can save all that time you’d spend watching Extras to go buy yourself a sci-fi film, or a Western, or just pop in your old copy of Star Wars.