Big Screen Review: Cowboys & Aliens

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The Pitch: Mild Mild West.

The Review: In the normal cycle of summer movies, it’s inevitable in the search for unique concepts that one genre may no longer be enough to satisfy audiences who’ve grown bored of superheroes and giant fighty robots. If you were looking for genres to splice together, near the top of your list would likely be sci-fi, a sure fire summer winner, and the Western, possibly the most distinct American genre and the most likely to appeal to the widest possible audience. So in the attempt to appeal to every possible demographic, mashing together the sci-fi and the Western genres should certainly have a pretty broad appeal. Want to guarantee your audience? Then how about picking one of the hottest directors of summer properties working at the moment, with two Iron Man films under his belt, and then pick two actions stars of the highest calibre to fill your two lead roles. How about Indiana Jones and James Bond? Huh? HUH?

The concept, the casting, the snappy title. There’s no way that this could fail. Which can only mean that complacency must be the reason why Cowboys &  Aliens is a tedium-fest of the first order. It’s difficult to know where to start with this, so let’s aim for somewhere around the hour mark. This is about the point when the first thing of any interest and excitement happens in the entire running time, and even then it’s over mercifully briefly. Before that, we’ve endured an hour of set-up, which could and should have gone one of two ways. If you’re going to have cowboys and aliens, you should either make lots of subtle (or not-so-subtle) references and in-jokes to those genres, or in bringing them together you should find something new and refreshing in one or both of them. The assumption here is that purely having Cowboys & Aliens together is such a wheeze, having them on screen together is enough. It’s not, by a long chalk.

You’ll struggle to find a blander Western than the one the aliens stumble into. Daniel Craig does brooding and steely about as well as anyone, but here he’s been robbed of his memory, so that’s all he gets to do, and other than occasionally beating people up in frustration there’s no investment in him, because even he’s got no idea why he’s beating them up. Harrison Ford is some way short of his best, which normally occurs when he’s allowed to imbue his role with his natural charm, but gruff landowner fatally stifles that charm for vast swathes of the running time. In terms of the other characters, most of them get one-note roles, from Olivia Wilde (token woman) to Sam Rockwell (can’t shoot straight) and it’s only Clancy Brown as the town preacher who seems to have any warmth or depth to him. It also seems that Paul Dano only makes westerns these days, which serves as an instant reminder of how much better the other ones he’s been in are.

It’s the same old story, in more ways than one. Six credited writers and not one of them manages to come up with anything approaching a coherent story; it’s just a sequence of events that happen to the same people, developments generally just happen rather than being earned by the actions of the characters and little of it makes a jot of sense. It gets a little more interesting in the second hour, when the cowboys’ normal screen partners start to turn up in numbers and when they help the cowboys to take the fight to the alien interlopers. But this could have been so much more; instead it’s a flaccid excuse of a film, limping out in a sea of summer movies with superheroes and giant fighty robots that all turned up with more plot, character and charm than this. A few Daniel Craig moments and a large scale, if odd, climax, aside, then this is just one more indication why such disparate genres just don’t mix.

Why see it at the cinema: It’s not short of scale and wide open spaces, it’s just short of pretty much everything else. But if lots of shots of the Old West are your thing, then you’ll not be disappointed.

The Score: 4/10

Review: Source Code

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The Pitch: Quantum Loop.

The Review: Two years ago, Duncan Jones announced his arrival as a film-maker of note with his debut feature, Moon. If you’ve not seen it, then (a) shame on you, and (b) it was a wonderful marriage of some hard sci-fi concepts with a very old school feel and story telling method, even eschewing masses of CGI for honest-to-goodness model making for the spaceship shots, for example. When crafting something so distinctive, there’s a risk that expectations increase unfairly for the follow-up, and that the audience is either expecting more of the same or a complete departure. What Jones has produced is a half-way house, still grounded in some chunky sci-fi concepts, but with a slightly bigger budget and a change in both tone and pacing. That change is just different, but it shows already that Jones is comfortable working in more than one style.

Two years ago, Duncan Jones announced his arrival as a film-maker of note… no, hang on, I seem to have gone back to the beginning. What did we learn first time? Duncan Jones has made a sci-fi mystery thriller, instead of a sci-fi mystery drama. Actually, that may be all you need to know going in, as part of the joy is discovering Source Code for yourself; half of the action is set in or around a train bound for Chicago, and while Moon was relatively fixed in its position, Source Code moves, quite literally, at a hundred miles an hour from the word go. Which is shortly followed by the words “my train just exploded.” You can almost feel the inevitable comparison with Inception, and this is another example of British guided invention with some big concepts on the big screen, but here instead of one world with many layers, all of which are built on self-defining principles, we have two worlds presented to us, and through the eyes of Capt. Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhall), we have to try to understand not only what’s actually taking place, but also how the train and the Source Code are connected.

Two years ago, Duncan Jones… right, film-maker of note. Change in style. Will get unfairly compared to Inception. Simultaneous mysteries. Comparisons have also been made to Groundhog Day, and those might be slightly fairer, but only in the sense of what that film did so well and what Source Code also achieves, in that repeating the same actions over and over sounds like it could be horribly repetitive, but actually it’s only the framework that repeats, and the central character takes a different route through it each time, while the plot continues to advance at a significant rate. No doubt helping that transition are Gyllenhall and Michelle Monaghan, neither a stranger to having to insert depth of character into the action movie or thriller, and both do excellent work here, Gyllenhall especially managing to invest both realities with sufficient variations to keep it interesting. Vera Farmiga is also noteworthy as the voice of authority, and brings emotion to a role that could have been clogged up with exposition. It’s just a shame that the film is set at breakfast time, as Jeffrey Wright appears to be tucking into his first meal of the day; sadly chewed scenery gets eaten each time we go through another scene with him. Thankfully it’s not enough to unbalance the film too much.

Two years ago, Duncan Jones was the son of David Bowie. Now he’s a film maker in his own right, and he has two movies of equally high quality to show for it. There are obvious connections between the two, not least a few of the director’s trademarks, including the odd inclusion of Chesney Hawkes’ “The One And Only” and Jones’ excellent choices in voice casting, here the supremely self-referential voice of Stevens’ father, but otherwise there’s a complete difference in tone; yet in the same way that Rear Window and North By Northwest happily spring from the same hand, so Source Code is a worthy companion piece to Moon. While comparisons to the work of Nolan and Harold Ramis are the obvious ones on the surface, look deeper and you’ll see themes picked up by everyone from Paul Verhoeven to David Cronenberg, yet it still feels fresh. The plot isn’t by any means predictable, taking plenty of satisfying twists and turns but moving fast enough that you’ll have to consider the moral ramifications once you’ve left your seat and headed for the exit. That’s no bad thing, though, and Source Code is superior entertainment, working both as good sci-fi, top notch thriller and believable romantic drama, marshalling its resources expertly and leaving you keen to see what Duncan Jones has to offer next. Let’s just hope it’s another original – he’s one man who’s shown he doesn’t need to keep repeating himself to have success.

Why see it at the cinema: Duncan Jones has a fantastic sense of the visual, there’s plenty of audience-reaction-inducing good lines along the way and with this kind of mystery, half the fun is attempting to work out if you have sussed what’s going on before your neighbour.

The Score: 9/10