Cowboys & Aliens - review

Yes, yes, cowboys punching aliens in the face can be funny. But it doesn't make this silly endeavour worthwhile, says Peter Bradshaw

Many of us had to live through the dark, dark days of Wild, Wild West, Barry Sonnenfeld's mash-up retro-futurist Western from 1999. We flinched; we winced; we watched as the terrible Wild-West-plus-sci-fi idea crashed and burned spectacularly, and the pure wood performances of Kevin Kline and Will Smith went up in smoke.

  1. Cowboys & Aliens
  2. Production year: 2011
  3. Country: USA
  4. Cert (UK): 12A
  5. Runtime: 118 mins
  6. Directors: Jon Favreau
  7. Cast: Daniel Craig, Harrison Ford, Keith Carradine, Noah Ringer, Olivia Wilde, Paul Dano, Sam Rockwell
  8. More on this film

A roughly similar nightmare has now arisen. Something that might have been frankly better left as a throwaway joke, or a doodle on an executive's notepad, has actually made it through the system as a full-length feature film, directed with a not-very-light touch by Jon Favreau.

In 1875, an escaped outlaw called Jake Lonergan, played by Daniel Craig with a perpetual, lemon-sucking facial expression, finds himself waking up in the middle of the desert with no memory, and a weird metal bracelet clamped around his wrist. Jake is to join forces with a cantankerous, aggressive old cattle-magnate called Woodrow Dolarhyde, played by Harrison Ford, who has cause to hate Jake for beating up his no-good son Percy (Paul Dano). But Percy has been kidnapped, along with many other townspeople, by a bunch of extra-terrestrial varmints with slurpy tentacles and fancy bleeping spaceships. So Jake and Woodrow have to saddle up, organise a posse and get their six-guns at the ready to take on these darned inter-planetary interlopers. But that bracelet, and various fuzzy flashbacks, give Jake the awful feeling that he has in fact already been kidnapped, experimented upon and dropped back on to the burning scrub.

Of course it's actually Cowboys & Indians & Aliens. Native Americans are given a number of reasonable roles. The movie is careful not to demonise them, and in fact makes a big deal of making Jake beat up some bad, nasty white cowboys who have severed scalps on their belts. Our postmodern searchers are not aware of Native Americans carrying out such practices.

It would be nice to think Cowboys & Aliens was an intentional satire on the Hollywood myth factory endlessly dramatising homely-yet-heroic frontiersmen taking on the sinister unknown, whether in the Old West or on the Planet Vorg. It would be nice to think it was a commentary on white America's fear of the Other, or on the simple fact that for the Native American, it was the cowboys who were the aliens. And despite a very big reveal around halfway through the film, it's not clear if the film quite realises that in both the Western and the sci-fi worlds, the real aliens are the womenfolk.

But really, no. It's just a big gag, which is played out with worryingly little in the way of comedy. Of course, doing it absolutely straight is sound reasoning, but it's actually not played all that straight. There's an implied wink or a grin or a giggle running through the whole movie. And the awful truth is that the cowboy-world-meeting-the-spaceship-world mashup has already been done, triumphantly, by the Toy Story movies, with the friendship of Buzz Lightyear and Sheriff Woody.

This isn't to say there aren't a few laughs. As in Independence Day, there is some comedy value in punching a gloopy alien right on the jaw. Craig has a nice moment when, full tilt on a galloping horse, he comes up alongside a low-flying enemy spaceship and leaps from his mount right over on to it.

Finally, Jake and Woodrow's posse discover the alien's mothership in the middle of the desert. This vast, gaunt structure is a bit of a disappointment. It is not the traditional saucer-shaped metal form, with glowing perimeter lights best seen by night. No, it's a great big ugly lump of a thing; it looks like the multi-storey car park in Get Carter, designed for throwing dodgy Newcastle businessmen to their deaths. But this is the HQ/command centre for the aliens.

So what's with Jake's bracelet? Well, it turns out that he can use it to shoot at aliens and alien spacecraft. That's convenient. Without it, and relying on just their guns, our poor cowboys wouldn't stand a chance. So how has Jake come to be left with a weapon that can be used so devastatingly against the aliens? How indeed? This question is never satisfactorily answered. And in fact the whole of the backstory, the whole of Jake's existence up until now, and why precisely the aliens need to kidnap people like this, is all a bit fuzzy. Audiences may find themselves wondering if the aliens followed traditional techniques, and used the anal probe. It might explain Daniel Craig's pursed-lips expression.

Perhaps, if this movie works out, we could, in this country, come up with our own version: Cowboy Builders & Aliens. Some strange green creatures require a new loft conversion on their planet, call someone on a card that's just been put through the door and some dodgy blokes from Essex show up, perhaps played by Daniel Craig and Bob Mills. They look around and ask the alien creatures which idiot put that damp course in. It's worth a try.

cantankerous: kłótliwy

clamped: zaciśnięty

dodgy: sprytny

doodle: bazgroł

endeavour: przedsięwzięcie

flinch: wzdragać się

fuzzy: niejasny, niewyraźny

gaunt: ponury

gloopy: kleisty

implied: ukryty

interloper: intruz

loft: strych

outlaw: człowiek wyjęty spod prawa

posse: oddział pościgowy

slurpy: mlaszczący

varmint: hultaj        

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