- May 9, 2003
Cowboys & Aliens doesn’t quite make the full round up of talent, story and action that you would expect, given the people who made the movie. In theory, a comic book adaptation starring Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford, directed by the man who directed the first two Iron Man movies and produced by a team including Steven Spielberg and Ron Howard should be a home run. And yet this one just doesn’t come together. There are some good inventions here and there, some great bits of widescreen cinematography, and some good climactic action moments, but the movie is just too long and too slow without enough material to justify the length. There’s some confusion here in the genre – in that the filmmakers are trying to present a classic Western, when the actual material is more of a comic book hybrid that favors the science fiction side of the equation. The new Blu-ray edition presents two versions of the film in solid high definition picture and sound, along with a raft of extras, including a director’s commentary, an excellent series of interviews, and an improved rendition of the “Second Screen” functionality introduced earlier this year. I can certainly recommend a rental of this title for the extras alone, but the movie itself is a bit dicier.
COWBOYS & ALIENS
Length: 1 hrs 59 mins (Theatrical), 2 hrs 15 mins (Extended)
Genre: Science Fiction/Western/Comic Book Adaptation
Aspect Ratio: 2.40:1
BD Resolution and Codec: 1080p, AVC @ 20 mpbs
Audio: English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 (@ an average 3.7 mbps, up to 5.1 mbps), Spanish DTS 5.1, French DTS 5.1, English DVS 2.0
Subtitles: English SDH, French, Spanish
Film Rating: PG-13 (Western & Sci Fi Action and Violence, Partial Nudity, A Brief Crude Reference), Unrated (Same)
Release Date: December 6, 2011
Starring: Daniel Craig, Harrison Ford, Olivia Wilde, Sam Rockwell, Adam Beach, Paul Dano, Noah Ringer and Keith Carradine
Screenplay by: Roberto Orci & Alex Kurtzman & Damon Lindelof and Mark Fergus & Hank Ostby
Based on Platinum Studios’ Comic Book Series “Cowboys and Aliens” by: Scott Mitchell Rosenberg
Directed by: Jon Favreau
Film Rating: 2 ½/5
With the creative team assembled here, Cowboys & Aliens should have been a smashing success. Between producers Steven Spielberg and Ron Howard, director Jon Favreau and a cast led by the current James Bond and the man known for both Han Solo and Indiana Jones, there’s enough firepower here to virtually guarantee a blockbuster hit. And yet, that didn’t happen. The short version of this story is that the movie centers on an amnesiac gunman in the Old West (Daniel Craig) sporting a strange technical contraption on his wrist who shows up in the frontier town of Absolution just in time for an alien attack. In the aftermath, he joins forces with the local cattle boss (Harrison Ford) to track and fight the aliens. That’s most of the basic plot of this story, without getting into spoilers. But the movie still goes on for two hours in the theatrical cut, and for an agonizing additional 15 minutes for the extended edition. There’s just not enough material to justify the running time, and while the cast is quite strong, there simply isn’t much for them to do but occasionally react to the special effects erupting around them. For those interested in the details, we’ll get into that in the next paragraphs. For those who want to get to the picture, sound and special features, please skip ahead to the next section.
SPOILERS HERE: Cowboys & Aliens is really a movie that’s trying to have it both ways. It wants to be taken seriously as a classically styled Western, complete with the anamorphic photography of beautiful, spare vistas, and the usual elements. There’s the confrontation with the Indians, the confrontation with the band of outlaws, the posse ride out into the wilderness, and of course, the frontier town on hard times that finds a new lease on life. The movie even ends with the notion of history moving on in the town and Daniel Craig’s gunslinger riding out into the distance. The performances are modulated to the tone of a Western – Daniel Craig goes for a classic, strong silent type of performance, while Harrison Ford chews the scenery as the local cattleman. Keith Carradine fits in as the easygoing Sheriff and Sam Rockwell channels Jimmy Stewart from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance in his performance as the local bartender. All this is well and good, but this movie is not a Western. There are none of the truly deep wells of iconic character or theme found in High Noon, Shane or Rio Bravo. This is a much more shallow affair, so the long scenes establishing the town or showing the posse on the move don’t have much resonance to them. We know what they are in short order, and the movie isn’t adding much to them, other than the thought that they should unfold slowly.
MORE SPOILERS: The actual story of the movie is a transposed alien abduction tale, reset to the Old West by comic book maven Scott Mitchell Rosenberg, and it probably works best as a comic book, given the combination of genres. The throughline of the story is that the aliens have abducted the loved ones of almost all of the main characters, and that their invasion plans involve not only the usual scenes of torture and “testing” of the human victims but also the theft of the gold from the Old West to power their infernal machines. Through multiple flashbacks, we learn that Daniel Craig’s gunman is actually a local outlaw who was abducted along with his girlfriend, and his current lack of memory is a result of that abduction – a nightmarish scene in which he not only sees what happens to his girl but also somehow winds up with an alien wrist weapon attached to his wrist. This part of the story at least provides for a few good action moments as Craig fires the weapon at the aliens and their flying craft, particularly when compared with the ineffectiveness of the usual six-guns. But there’s still not a lot of material here. Olivia Wilde’s character, an independent woman with her own connection to the aliens, at first seems anachronistic, and then perplexing. We learn only one or two things about her along the way before her true story purpose is revealed at the end of the film. There’s a common theme running in the movie about people needing to work together against a common foe, and it’s a worthy one. The sight of the cowboys, Indians and outlaws all fighting the aliens is an interesting one, and what might have made for a good summation, had the script been a more solid piece of work.
MORE SPOILERS: To be clear, this isn’t a really bad movie, or one that doesn’t have good intentions. It’s just a movie that has become quite confused on its way to being made. Part of this is due to having way too many cooks in the kitchen. The movie was in development all the way from 1997, at the time that Rosenberg first announced the idea, and was then re-developed in 2006, when the comic book came out. Multiple screenwriters have tried to work on the movie, culminating with the currently popular duo of Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman. Add to that not only the influence of their usual collaborator, Damon Lindelof, but also the ideas of Steven Spielberg and Ron Howard and their respective companies. Add to that the ideas of Jon Favreau, who chose with Spielberg to emphasize the Western elements as the focus of the movie. With all that going on, it’s easy to see where the wheels came off the wagon, but harder to say what approach would have been better. If anything, it may be a case, like Watchmen, where the original idea works better on the paper of a comic book rather than on the screen.
Cowboys & Aliens was released simultaneously on Blu-ray and standard definition last week. The Blu-ray has everything from the standard DVD, and adds high definition picture and sound, along with more featurettes, an excellent collection of interviews and an improved “Second Screen” feature that requires pocket BLU to activate). The Blu-ray also includes the DVD copy of the movie on a second disc. Both editions come with a scene-specific audio commentary by director Jon Favreau and several featurettes. (For the Blu-ray, those materials are presented in high definition video). Instructions for downloading a digital copy and getting an Ultraviolet copy are also included in the package. I’m very happy to recommend this Blu-ray for rental, specifically for the extras. Fans of Daniel Craig, Harrison Ford, Jon Favreau, or even the comic book, will likely want to see the movie – owning it is another step that I only recommend if the viewer is happy after the rental.
VIDEO QUALITY 4 ½/5
Cowboys & Aliens is presented in a 1080p AVC 2.40:1 transfer that brings in multiple environments and flesh tones in a vivid and satisfying manner. The beautiful cinematography of Matthew Libatique is well presented here. I should note that a good portion of the movie takes place at night, in dusty and dark conditions, so that scenes have a kind of gray-ish dirty straw look. This is intentional, and it is countered by the striking vistas seen by day. The increasing amounts of CGI as the film progresses are fairly seamless.
AUDIO QUALITY 5/5
Cowboys & Aliens is presented in an English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix in English, as well as standard DTS mixes in Spanish and French, and an English DVS track. The HD mix is a study in contrasts. Some scenes are appropriately quiet and introspective, with an emphasis more on subtle atmospherics and quiet dialogue. Those are the ones closer to the traditional Western ideas in the movie. Once the alien attacks begin, the mix goes completely wild, with surround effects zipping around the room and the subwoofer getting a complete workout. This is another movie to put on the list not to blare after midnight. Before midnight, however, enjoy with abandon.
SPECIAL FEATURES 3 ½/5
The Blu-Ray presentation of Cowboys & Aliens comes packed with materials, including everything on the DVD edition, coupled with an excellent series of interviews by Jon Favreau and the improved Second Screen idea.
U-Control: PIP – This is the usual Scene Companion, including on-set video and interviews about the various scenes as they unfold. This material is not available on every chapter, but when it pops up, it’s good stuff.
My Scenes – The usual Blu-ray bookmarking feature is available here, allowing the viewer to set their own bookmarks throughout the film.
BD-Live - This Blu-ray includes access to Universal’s BD-Live online site, allowing for the viewing of trailers online.
D-Box Motion Code – An option is presented to use this motion code in sound systems that can handle it.
pocket BLU – This Blu-ray includes the usual pocket BLU functionality, enabling viewers with appropriate laptop, iPad or smart phone integration to remotely control their Blu-ray player and access some of the bonus content from the separate device. As part of the pocket BLU application, the new “Second Screen” adds further content.
Second Screen – In order to use this, you’ll need to have your tablet or laptop accessing the internet via wi fi on the same router your Blu-ray player uses. This function provides further material in multiple ways:
Behind the Scenes – When you activate Second Screen, you’ll see a timeline of the movie’s chapters, along with a series of additional content frames. Most of these frames are the Scene Companion PIP material seen in the U-Control section. But the Second Screen option includes even more material in more chapters. So if you only use the U-Control, you’ll be missing some of this – and it’s all good stuff. The difference here is that the material is played on your laptop or tablet while the movie plays on your television. The new function added here is “Flick View”, which allows you to move the PIP screen onto your television. On your tablet, this works by literally flicking the screen. On your laptop, it’s a mouse click function. (Would that make it “Click View”?....)
Scene Explorer – As seen with Fast Five, two movie chapters in the timeline also provide multi-view options – to see storyboards and animatics, to see on-set video, and to see the completed action scene.
Storyboards – With some chapters, storyboards are presented separately from the Scene Explorer function.
Alien Tech – This function allows you to access turnaround views of the alien creature, craft, and wrist weapon. You can also access these views at different points in the Second Screen timeline, or as a completely separate function within pocket BLU. The press release for the title indicates that tech specs are visible here, but I didn’t see any when using my laptop to access this function.
Commentary by Director Jon Favreau – (AVAILABLE BOTH ON DVD AND BLU-RAY) (ON BOTH VERSIONS OF THE FILM) Jon Favreau provides a pretty thorough commentary on the making of the movie, talking you through every scene along the way. This commentary was recorded for the extended version of the movie, and Favreau mentions that it will just be edited down to fit on the theatrical version.
The following materials are presented in high definition on the Blu-ray. If they are also available on the DVD, they would obviously be presented in standard definition there:
Conversations with Jon Favreau (80:02 Total, 1080p) (BLU-RAY EXCLUSIVE) – These conversations are the best thing on the Blu-ray. Jon Favreau sits down with the biggest names involved in this production and gets them to talk about their careers in sometimes surprising ways. For a fan of many of their movies, this is a treasure trove all by itself. I should note that Favreau shares a bit about himself in these discussions but keeps the focus on the interviewees.
Daniel Craig (14:50) – Daniel Craig talks to Favreau for a bit about the work on this movie and then they segue into his work as James Bond. Craig relates the issues that came up during the making of Casino Royale when bloggers discounted him as Bond and ridiculed his appearance in an attack boat on the Thames to promote the movie. Of course, once the movie came out, those bloggers mostly went quiet on the subject…
Harrison Ford (19:01) – Harrison Ford shows off some of his prickly side in his discussion with Favreau. He starts off a bit testy about the producers taking credit for picking his hat for the movie when he feels that’s a choice he made with the costume designer. (Favreau gradually talks him down on this point) The two also discuss the fact that the movie was shot in film in anamorphic fashion and not in 3D. Ford is of course very happy about this, while Favreau makes a good case for NOT shooting this in 3D. (Favreau points out that he did a test in 3D as he would only make the movie that way if it was a native 3D shoot and not a 3D conversion. He also says that 3D doesn’t work as well for this kind of movie, since he wanted the distances between places, or between characters and approaching aliens, to be vague, and 3D tends to put things on specifically different planes from each other.) On Favreau’s prodding, Ford goes on to talk about his work on the Star Wars movies, giving a bit more detail about his famous ad-lib for The Empire Strikes Back, and dropping a major hint that Richard Dreyfuss may have been considered for the part before Ford essentially fell into it.
Olivia Wilde (10:48) – Olivia Wilde talks with enthusiasm about working on this movie, including the one incident where she fell off her horse and had to be taken to the hospital. She also talks, with equal enthusiasm, about her educational work in Haiti.
Steven Spielberg, Ron Howard and Brian Grazer (14:19) – While all three producers are sitting with Favreau, the lion’s share of the talking is done by Spielberg. Among other stories he tells, he discusses meeting John (Jack) Ford in his office when he was just starting out in the business. In that meeting, Ford taught him (in Ford’s inimitable manner) to always consider the horizon line in composing images for motion pictures.
Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci (6:44) – Both writers sit together with Favreau for this discussion which is probably the most irreverent one of the bunch. They discuss having worked on various drafts of Goonies 2 for Spielberg years before being hired to work on The Legend of Zorro, with Spielberg never having put together that these were the same guys…
Damon Lindelof (14:20) – Damon Lindelof mostly gets pulled into talking about Lost, which includes some good bits. Lindelof recalls meeting Tom Cruise in the editing bay when JJ Abrams was cutting the pilot episode and realizing that they wouldn’t be seeing Abrams again after that. He also talks about the basic story of Lost, and how they had a very general plan for the series, which is borne out by how it developed over the years. (Lindelof of course does not mention Abrams’ brief return to the series after Mission Impossible III did less business than expected…)
Igniting The Sky: The Making of Cowboys & Aliens (40:12 Total, 1080p) (PARTLY BLU-RAY EXCLUSIVE) – This is an assembly of five featurettes about the making of the movie. Three of these (“Finding The Story”, “Outer Space Icon” and “The Scope of the Spectacle”) can also be found on the DVD edition. The other two (“A Call To Action” and “Absolution”) are exclusive to the Blu-ray edition. The featurettes are pretty standard material in terms of the usual mutual compliments from everyone and the the usual on-set footage. There’s some fun material about the stunts on set, particularly one of the guys getting pulled vertically off of his horse via a “gooch” rig. There’s also some material about the development of the alien creatures at Stan Winston’s studio under the direction of both Jon Favreau (who came up with the turtle-like appearance) and Steven Spielberg (who wanted the aliens to have eyes and facial expressions).
DVD Copy – A second disc is included in the package, holding the standard DVD of the theatrical cut of the movie. It contains the movie presented in standard definition in an anamorphic 2.35:1 picture with Dolby Digital 5.1 sound in English, Spanish and French (448 kbps) as well as the English DVS track. The commentary and the three featurettes (“Finding The Story”, “Outer Space Icon” and “The Scope of the Spectacle” are also included.
Digital and Ultraviolet Copies – Instructions are included in the packaging for downloading a digital copy of the movie to your laptop or portable device, as well as for obtaining an Ultraviolet streaming copy to be placed up in the cloud. The instructions include a deadline of May 27, 2012 for activation. I note that the pocket BLU online menu now also includes an option for downloading the digital copy.
Subtitles are available for the film and the special features, in English, Spanish and French. A full chapter menu is available for the film, with markers to note which chapters have applicable U-Control features.
IN THE END...
Cowboys & Aliens should be a much more entertaining movie than it is, given the strong lineup of talent involved in its production. It’s not their best work or even the best of movies. But it’s still a solid Blu-ray package, not only for the picture and sound but particularly for the collection of interviews in the extras. I recommend that fans of the comic book, or of Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford, rent this title to sample the extras and the HD picture and sound quality for themselves.
December 13, 2011.