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Cowboys & Aliens

Universal // PG-13 // December 6, 2011
List Price: $34.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Adam Tyner | posted November 28, 2011 | E-mail the Author
"Cowboys and Aliens wasn't good enough. Forget all the smart people involved in it; it wasn't good enough. All those little creatures bouncing around were crappy. I think it was a mediocre movie, and we all did a mediocre job with it... Cowboys and Aliens didn't deserve better. [It] was a big loss. We misfired. We were wrong. We did it badly, and I think we're all guilty of it. I have to take first responsibility because I'm part of it, but we all did a mediocre job, and we paid the price for it. It happens. They're talented people. Certainly you couldn't have more talented people involved in Cowboys and Aliens, but it took, you know, ten smart and talented people to come up with a mediocre movie. It just happens."
- Universal high sheriff Ron Meyer speaking at the Savannah Film Festival about Cowboys and Aliens

Um, he's not wrong.

Cowboys and Aliens, at least on the surface, has a hell of a lot going for it: the right look, the right cast, and the right premise. Sure, sure, a sci-fi/western mashup isn't exactly blazing new ground, but most of those movies and TV series are set in deep space or on far-flung alien worlds. Shifting the setting to Earth at the tail-end of the 19th century -- a time when even the concept of an alien was...y'know, alien -- is kind of ingenious, pitting legions of towering, otherworldly creatures against an onslaught of pistols, bows, and arrows. The buzz from back when Cowboys and Aliens was still making the rounds in theaters wasn't exactly glowing, but I tried to go in with an open mind. For a while there, I couldn't fathom the criticism at all. The first...I don't know, twenty
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minutes are incredible. With his weathered face and daunting presence, Daniel Craig is the best stoic, silent Man without a Name type this side of Leone. The brawls early on are swift and brutal. The production design and cinematography are world-class. Add in the likes of Paul Dano, Clancy Brown, Sam Rockwell, Keith Carradine, Adam Beach, and Harrison Ford, and I was completely enthralled.

...and then came the "aliens" part of Cowboys and Aliens. Six credited writers -- and who knows how many script doctors beyond that -- and none of them could figure out a way to make it work. That's the bizarre thing about the movie. If it had continued playing as a straight Western, I'd probably be writing a fawning review right about now, seeing as how those early sequences are unrelentingly brilliant, but then it had to go and be a summer tentpole. Ron Meyer had it right; Cowboys and Aliens isn't a bad movie, but despite all the right talent being attached, the end result is forgettable and mediocre.

I guess I'm supposed to hammer out some kind of plot summary right about now, as if you need a whole lot more than "cowboys and aliens!" The movie opens with some nameless man (Daniel Craig) waking up in the desert with no memory of who he is and a strange bracelet attached to his arm. He can speak English, and he sure as hell knows how to fight, but seemingly every other trace of memory is gone. It's not long before this Man with No Name clues into the stagecoach-robbing thug he used to be, and, as luck would have it, that comes right about the same time he and the son of local cattle baron Woodrow Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford) come to blows. The sheriff in these parts is just starting to figure out what to do with him when...uh, a bunch of aliens swoop in and attack. These otherworldly creatures -- demonic hellspawn, as far as these God-fearing men in 1873 are aware -- have been snatching up the townsfolk for quite a while now, and Dolarhyde leads a search party to take back what's theirs. Of course, they're just a small group with a handful of six-shooters and an alien bracelet-blaster between 'em, and they're chasing down a gaggle of warriors from another planet with a bleeding-edge arsenal at their claw-like fingertips. 'Course, no one said it was gonna be easy...

Part of me wants to shrug Cowboys and Aliens off as a hollow effects spectacle. The only thing is that the effects are mostly crammed into just a few setpieces (a few gigantic setpieces, admittedly), and everything in between is bland and uninvolving. Once the first alien warparty starts blasting apart this sleepy Western town, Cowboys and Aliens grinds to a screeching halt and never really recovers. You're supposed to care about what happens because you shelled out twenty bucks to buy the movie on Blu-ray, I guess; there's certainly no real dramatic or emotional hook. Daniel Craig plays the badass bruiser in search of redemption, in stark contrast to Harrison Ford's Dolarhyde who is...well, an older bruiser in search of redemption, I guess. I
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didn't even get around to mentioning Olivia Wilde a paragraph up because she's mostly there to look pretty, get kissed, and dole out exposition. Not all that far removed from the recent Tron sequel that also co-starred Wilde, Cowboys and Aliens has the potential to be a hell of a lot of fun but instead is largely joyless and self-serious. Those few moments that lean towards something vaguely comedic fall flat, the stabs at drama often feel forced and unengaging, and as much as I like pretty much everyone on the bill, I hardly ever connected with anyone in the cast. Piling on so many gifted character actors leads to scattered glimpses of brilliance, but the most memorable of those small parts are almost immediately shoved to the sidelines. The higher-octane action sequences are competently shot but, despite the scale of the assaults, don't really get the adrenaline pumping. Cowboys and Aliens takes its share of risks -- it's unflinchingly violent for a movie that's trying to be so accessible, and its final moments throw out the Summer Action Tentpole playbook entirely -- but I found myself wishing it'd taken a lot more. It's frustratingly okay. I wasn't particularly bored. Wasn't particularly interested. There's not a laundry list of stuff that I need to bitch about. Nothing that makes me feel like heaping on paragraphs of glowing praise. Memorable, standout moments like the creepy innards of the alien ship are sparse. No dialogue worth quoting or cringing about. It's a movie that's just kind of...there. Rent It, I guess.

Oh, and this Blu-ray set features both the PG-13 theatrical version of Cowboys and Aliens along with an unrated, extended cut that clocks in about sixteen minutes longer. The supporting players are better fleshed out in this extended take, tossing in a slew of additional character moments, particularly throughout the first act of the film. Basically any scene where everyone's standing around and talking runs a good bit longer. This version of Cowboys and Aliens also features an additional kiss between Craig and Wilde and better establishes some of the action, like the climb up the aliens' towering ship.

To no one's great shock or astonishment, this $160-someodd million dollar visual effects spectacle shot by one of the most impossibly talented D.P.s in the industry is a complete knockout on Blu-ray. Cowboys and Aliens is, of course, startlingly sharp and detailed throughout. Its palette is largely subdued, with many of the interiors in particular skewing towards a dusty brown. Not only does that reinforce the somewhat somber tone that Cowboys and Aliens is aiming for, but it greatly heightens the impact of the film's more colorful moments: the vividly saturated flashbacks shot on reversal stock and the dazzling cyans that dominate the alien attacks. In keeping with the cinematic language of so many classic Westerns, Cowboys and Aliens was shot anamorphic, and its filmic texture hasn't been filtered or processed away. As this Blu-ray disc is culled from the digital intermediate, there are obviously no flecks of dust, nicks, or tears to get in the way, and the compression remains rock solid throughout. I can imagine some people being turned off by the film's color timing -- it never really looks natural, particularly that distractingly digital shade of blue in the sky -- but otherwise, Cowboys and Aliens looks pretty much perfect.

Cowboys and Aliens gobbles up just about every last byte on this Blu-ray disc, and for maximum efficiency, Universal's turned to seamless branching to pile on these two different versions of the film. Both cuts are letterboxed to an aspect ratio of 2.39:1 and have been encoded with AVC.

If there's one Academy Award nomination that's a lock for Cowboys and Aliens, it's Best Sound Editing. This is an exceptionally aggressive mix, unleashing a thunderous low-end, relentlessly lobbing effects from one speaker to the next, and somehow still managing to keep the film's dialogue from ever getting overwhelmed. Every last element in this 24-bit DTS-HD Master Audio track is dazzlingly clean, clear, and distinct. You'd expect the sequences with alien spacecraft soaring overhead and bullets whizzing every which way to take full advantage of the 5.1 setup -- and they do! -- but even lower-key moments are bolstered by some subtle yet effective pans, such as a bottle of whiskey or a loosened belt getting flung across the screen. There's often a convincing sense of atmosphere as well, such as the creaking inside that overturned ship. Simply flawless.

Cowboys and Aliens also serves up lossy DTS dubs in French and Spanish as well as subtitle streams in English (SDH), French, and Spanish. There's D-Box functionality too -- I didn't know that was still a thing? -- along with a descriptive video service track.

  • Second Screen / U-Control: Cowboys and Aliens offers up two very different approaches to its featured supplementary video material. You can either have this footage play picture-in-picture or give it a look on your tablet. This was
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    my first time trying out one of those iPad-centric extras, and I'll admit to being impressed by how well everything's connected. Universal's app syncs up precisely with the film, and I can even use my iPad as an oversized remote to change chapters, pause, and the like. Watching this footage on a tablet has the advantage of being larger than a tiny picture-in-picture window on the screen, but...well, there's the obvious disadvantage of the modest iPad speaker competing with a gigantic home theater. The footage on the tablet is, by design, going to feel detached from the movie in a way that a picture-in-picture extra could never be. The implementation is sleek and sexy, and there are a lot of really cool things I think you could do with more interactive features. For video-based material like this, though, I think I'd just as soon stick with the picture-in-picture version going forward.

    Unless I somehow managed to miss something along the way, there are twenty-one segments in all that run a grand total of 51 minutes. For anyone keeping track at home, that's a little over a third of Cowboys and Aliens' extended runtime of 2 hours and 15 minutes. These include behind-the-scenes footage, animatics, and slews of interviews. Among the topics are dissecting the defining elements of the Western, shooting on location in New Mexico, the cast doing much of their own riding, how Apache consultants helped shape certain elements of the film, and how the cast and crew on the set dealt with shooting such a visual effects-heavy project. There's a lot of really good material scattered around in here and it's worth taking the time to sift through.

    The Second Screen app also serves up a few other featurettes as well as a presumably interactive Alien Tech widget, although I couldn't figure out how to get that last one to work. Maybe it'll be ready closer to when Cowboys and Aliens hits store shelves...?

  • Conversations with Jon Favreau (81 min.; SD): Easily my favorite thing about this Blu-ray disc -- and that definitely includes the movie itself! -- is this feature-length collection of interviews headed by Jon Favreau. There are six of them in all, including sitdowns with Daniel Craig, Harrison Ford, Olivia Wilde, Damon Lindelof, Alex Kurtzman and Robert Orci, and Steven Spielberg, Ron Howard, and Brian Grazer. These interviews are personable, engaging, and genuinely insightful, and part of the appeal is that Favreau doesn't limit the conversation to just Cowboys and Aliens. It's never even close to being the dominant topic in any of these interviews, actually. Among the many, many highlights: the comically disastrous reception to Daniel Craig as the new Bond before Casino Royale was finally released, Harrison Ford not being all that keen on replying "I love you too" in The Empire Strikes Back, the reveal that Olivia Wilde's character hadn't...really been figured out when she was cast in Tron: Legacy, Steven Spielberg's brilliant story about meeting John Ford as a teenager, Spielberg forgetting how terrible Kurtzman and Orci's treatments for Goonies II were, and Damon Lindelof running through the pros and cons of a serialized TV series with no defined endpoint. Seriously, these interviews are so great, to the point that if you're a huge fan of any of these folks, it's worth picking up Cowboys and Aliens for these conversations alone.

  • Igniting the Sky: The Making of Cowboys and Aliens (40 min.; HD): If you've already plowed through the Second Screen feature and its additional unlocked extras, there's nothing in "Igniting the Sky" you haven't already seen, although at least here it's all in high-def. It's divided into five distinct featurettes that can be viewed individually or played all at once, focusing on the genre mashup of a premise, the design and fabrication of the alien creatures, the sheer volume of action, the ambitious visual effects work, and a whole thing about Cowboys and Aliens being a metaphor for Manifest Destiny.

  • Audio Commentary: The last of the extras on the disc itself is a commentary track with director Jon Favreau. For Blu-ray discs that have both rated and unrated cuts, I'm used to the commentary being on the theatrical version only, but that's not the case this time around. It's a very thoughtful and engaging commentary, one that flawlessly balances the technical
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    elements of Cowboys and Aliens with a slew of notes about story and theme. Favreau delves into the elements that he feels separates this movie from the usual summer popcorn flicks, playing off of traditional Western archetypes, some of the tweaks Spielberg suggested to make Cowboys and Aliens a more sleekly edited machine, why exactly the aliens were chasing after gold, and that Olivia Wilde's character was still kind of a work-in-progress even while cameras were rolling on the movie. I really enjoyed this commentary, and it kind of makes me wish I liked the movie more than I actually do.

The second disc in the set is an anamorphic widescreen DVD with the PG-13 cut of Cowboys and Aliens. The movie comes packaged in an embossed, glossy cardboard sleeve, and there's a code inside that'll let you stream the movie or download a digital copy.

The Final Word
Cowboys and Aliens has a few scattered moments that tease at something greater, but the remainder of the film is an indifferently written summer effects tentpole that fails to coax much of a reaction out of me at all. Not bad and definitely not good, Cowboys and Aliens flounders into a forgettable shrug somewhere in between. Its release on Blu-ray is tremendous, so if you caught the movie in theaters and dug it, you can fork over your twenty-however-many bucks for this set with the full confidence that you're gonna get your money's worth. Everyone else, though...? I'd say Rent It first.
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