The intermingling of genres like science-fiction and the western is really nothing new in movies, but the CGI-laden 'Cowboys & Aliens' aims to feel like something audiences haven't seen before. While not exactly as intelligently topical as Michael Crichton's 'Westworld' or amusingly subtle as Joss Whedon's 'Serenity,' Jon Favreau's action flick brings a good deal of engaging entertainment and exciting spectacle to the proceedings. It might not please every viewer out there, but it satisfies the wide-eyed fantasies of long-time devoted followers of both genres (or at least, of this particular viewer).
The movie's genre-mashup is quite overt and in your face, which could be seen as a bit of a drawback because it definitely shows a lack of finesse. It commences with a western theme and setting, suddenly switching to an alien invasion storyline that runs through the usual obstacle course. The change is surprisingly not as jarring as one would reasonably expect, although it takes some time to find its proper footing afterwards. The glue holding the marriage together is Favreau's direction infused with several stylish nods to the archetypes and thematics of both styles, ranging again from explicit to sly.
Daniel Craig stars as our Man with No Name hero in the literal sense, waking up in the middle of a scorching desert without any recollection of who he is or why he carries a mysterious iron bracelet on his wrist. After a quickly determined fight with three bounty hunters, a clue into his past is revealed which nicely sets off that whole morally-ambiguous protagonist feel we love in a good 'ole shoot 'em up horse opera. Wearing Indiana Jones' fedora, the mystery man rides into a town conveniently named Absolution. This, too, pretty much sets the tone for the rest of the film — a little of the wittily clever mixed with the obvious.
It's not a complete loss, however, since it turns out 007 also makes a great anti-hero gunslinger. This is probably the best performance of a tough as nails and ill-tempered loner since Clint Eastwood's own iconic outlaw graced the screen, but to be perfectly honest, I wish it were seen in something far better than this, not that Favreau's film isn't any fun though it is somewhat weighed down at the beginning of the second act. When the aliens finally attack the town, allowing Craig to discover his charm bracelet is actually a futuristic handgun, the thrill of sci-fi elements mixes well with the western ideal, but afterwards, things quickly slow down.
The outsider is set on his quest to free those kidnapped, as well as to obviously absolve past sins, in typical frontier justice style. His ragtag posse consists of local folk, each playing to the strengths of their cliché. Harrison Ford is the most formidable as wealthy cattle rancher Colonel Dolarhyde. Beautiful Olivia Wilde is the knows-more-than-she-lets-on Ella. Sam Rockwell plays his part in his typical quiet fashion as a saloon owner with a medical background, while Paul Dano does the opposite as Dolarhyde's troubling-making son. Best surprise is Adam Beach as Dolarhyde's Native American hired hand, bringing a welcome emotional subplot to an otherwise straightforward tale.
Sadly, that aspect to the script can only be seen fully on the extended cut of the movie, which adds 16 minutes of dialogue and scenes that explore it a bit more, also making it the superior version. What was seen theatrically surprisingly eliminates more sequences with the Native Americans doing a war dance and Beach's Nat feeling disconnected from his people, like he doesn't belong in either world. It's a necessary component that makes a later heartfelt scene more powerful. In either case, 'Cowboys & Aliens' is an enjoyable, action-packed thrill ride, serving the perfect popcorn-entertainment blend of two very beloved genres, but the extended cut of the film is definitely the preferred version.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Universal Studios Home Entertainment brings 'Cowboys & Aliens' to Blu-ray in a two-disc package that contains the extended version of the movie along with the original theatrical cut, which is a 16-minute difference of added dialogue. The first is a Region Free, BD50 disc on an opposing panel to a DVD-9 and includes a code for the Ultraviolet Digital Copy. Both discs are housed inside a standard blue keepcase with a glossy cardboard slipcover. At startup, the BD commences with the usual internet-based assortment of trailers before filling the screen with a futuristic, alien-inspired main menu, music and full-motion clips.
'Cowboys & Aliens' debuts on Blu-ray with an excellent, near-reference 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode, filling the entire screen with tons of beautiful panoramic shots of New Mexico.
Framed in a 2.40:1 aspect ratio, Matthew Libatique's cinematography simply looks stunning, displaying incredible vistas of the desert plains and natural rock formations. The freshly-minted transfer shows remarkable clarity and definition, exposing the small, fine lines in the various wood buildings, the stitching on costumes and every pebble scattered about the ground. Facial complexions are beautifully detailed with lifelike textures, revealing the tiniest blemish, wrinkle and smudge of dirt on the faces of actors.
Part of this rich, distinct clarity comes from a pitch-perfect contrast balance, extending visibility into the far distance. The picture carries an attractive cinematic appeal that's vibrant, crisp and glossy all around without feeling artificial or ruining highlights. The color palette is equally flashy with terrific, bold saturation, providing the image with lots of energy and pop. Being a western, of course, saturation hues pull their weight with a good deal of warmth and giving facial complexions a healthy tone that's accurate to the region. Blacks, on the other hand, are where we run into a bit of trouble, appearing inky and intense for a good chunk of the movie, but once indoors with natural, dim lighting, they look rather drab and murky. Since shadow delineation doesn't falter greatly during these sequences, it's possible it could all be the result of the photography and not a fault in the transfer.
Taken as a whole, Jon Favreau's sci-fi western is spectacular on Blu-ray.
The genre-bending actioner audio track also serves as the perfect partner in crime, furnishing the excellent video with an equally exceptional DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack.
Being a cross with the science-fiction genre, the original design features a great deal of activity in the rears, especially during scenes with the alien spacecrafts. What appear like scout drones whiz by overheard convincingly and pan between the speakers with persuasive ease, extending the soundfield with exciting effect. Imaging is widespread as other small atmospherics fill the back area, most notably when the posse spends the night inside an upside down steamboat. Even in the many segments of supposed silence, the track brings a satisfyingly immersive experience.
Things remain first-rate in the front soundstage, feeling quite expansive with lots of detailed clarity. Off-screen effects and channel separation provide spacious warmth that's highly engaging thanks to a brilliant, room-penetrating mid-range. The upper frequencies are sharp and crisp, maintaining the loud noise amid the many moments of action clear and discernible. The low-end, also, comes with a heaping helping of powerful, very responsive bass, giving each gunshot and explosion a compelling force and weight. Dialogue and a few whispered conversations are delivered with great intelligibility and nicely focused in the center of the screen, never drowned out by the rest of the action.
Ignoring a very small numbers of inactive scenes, this lossless mix of 'Cowboys & Aliens' sounds absolutely amazing and is exceedingly satisfying.
Universal ports over the same assortment of bonus features found on the day-and-date DVD release of the movie.
Jon Favreau's 'Cowboys & Aliens' is an entertaining blend of two much loved film genres: the western and sci-fi. With strong performances of western archetypes, the mash-up of frontier-justice gunslingers and alien invasion disaster is far from perfect, but the story sticks to what it promises and delivers without completely going overboard. Daniel Craig stands out as our morally ambiguous anti-hero and it would be great to see him again in the same genre with stronger material. The Blu-ray invades homes with an excellent near-reference audio and video presentation, and features a wealth of exclusive supplements, making it a recommended package for fans and the curious alike.