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Blu-ray Review: Cowboys & Aliens

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Featuring a stellar cast and a truly geek friendly premise, Cowboys & Aliens had all the right pieces to be a smash hit. But despite having Han Solo and James Bond fighting aliens together as directed by Iron Man’s John Favreau the movie did not quite live up to the hype when released. Now that it is out on Blu-ray, chock full of extras, Cowboys & Aliens deserves a second look.

The Film

click to view larger imageCowboys & Aliens starts off very quickly with the anti-hero character of Jake Lonergan (Daniel Craig) waking up in the wilderness with no memory and a strange metal bracelet on his arm. He is found by a group of men who presume he is an escaped criminal and try to take him into custody. Lonergan kills and wounds all of them instinctivly much to his own surprise. Taking their clothes and horses he heads to the nearest town where he is promptly arrested for crimes he committed before his memory loss.

While he is being prepared for his delivery to the nearest town with a courthouse aliens attack the town, yes aliens, it is right in the title of the movie! They take many townsfolk as prisoners, we presume indiscriminately, but of course to add tension and cohesion people with ties to key cast members are taken. This includes Sherrif Taggart (Keith Carradine), The Doc’s (Sam Rockwell) wife, and Colonel Woodrow Dollarhyde’s (Harrison Ford) son Percy (Paul Dano). During the attack Jake realizes that the bracelet is in fact a weapon that can damage and even kill the aliens.

click to view larger imageAfter the attack Dollarhyde, who is essentially a villain who controls the town, asks for Lonergan’s help to get back his son and the other townspeople. Feeling no kinship for any of them he declines and sets out to find his past. He discovers in a restored memory that he wasn’t a terribly nice person, had a wife named Alice (Abigail Spencer) and they were both kidnapped by the aliens. Somehow he escaped without her but still doesn’t remember how. He decides to re-join Dollarhyde and the posse as they track the aliens back to where they are keeping their kin.

What follows is frankly a bit of a mess a movie inter-mingled with some great moments. I was so dismayed by how uneven the film was that I had to look up the writing credits and discovered the problem, Cowboys & Aliens has eight credited writers. This truly explains the mix of good moments like Dollarhydes motivations and Lonergans stoic style but also explains the clichéd alien moments ripped right from Aliens and the terrible pacing that plagues the movie.

click to view larger imageThe movie starts well, falters as characters with no real purpose are introduced, then jumps to crazy alien action, slows to a grinding halt, and then picks up again. It does at least have a great cast giving perfectly acceptable performances. You can tell at times that Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford are as dismayed by the plot and action as we are but they give it their best shot. In the end Cowboys & Aliens is a movie full of flaws that remains watchable because of the sporadic great moments and a cast that truly carries the film.

The Video

I did say that the cast carries the film, but the video quality should be considered a star as well. As seems to be typical of a Universal release lately the 1080p/AVC-encoded video transfer on this Blu-ray is spectacular. From bright desert scenes to dimly lit interiors the image onscreen is amazing in every way. Small details like stubble, the scuffed metal on Lonegrans bracelet and textures in cloth jump out of the screen. This is a stellar transfer and while I disliked the alien’s designs there is no denying how terrific and seamless the CG looks in this transfer. A true triumph visually that is dragged down by the inconsistent movie itself.

The Audio

click to view larger imageThe video transfer may have blown me away, but the audio mix knocked me down with its sheer power and quality. I have been watching a lot of quieter movies lately so it was actually a real treat to listen to this visceral DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround track. Every aspect of the audio experience was expertly crafted, from minor noises like cloth rippling to the booming explosions as the aliens attack. Dialog is always perfectly understood; even when waves of aliens are shooting up the town and the surround mix is always in motion with ambient noise and audio cues floating all around.

I was able to crank the volume when watching and just plain loved the perfectly deep and sustained subwoofer usage I felt. Rumbles as attacks started grew into deep thrums as the explosions began. The effect was also always perfectly felt when Lonegran was blasting away with his weapon, I could feel each shot with satisfying intensity. This is a reference quality soundtrack that Universal should be VERY proud of.

The Extras

I really appreciated the extras, ranging from a terrific second screen offering using the pocket BLU app to some great conversations and an actual fun commentary track. It seemed everyone involved wanted this to succeed, why it went wrong is anyone’s guess.

  • click to view larger imageExtended Version: The Blu-ray version features the theatrical release and an extended version with 16 extra minutes. The extended just adds footage (no re-edit of the movioe) and doesn’t do anything to make the experience any better
  • U-Control Picture In Picture (HD): Not the most extensive picture in picture experience, but still a great deal of interesting content. Staging fight scenes, the actors motivations and alien designs are the highlights.
  • Audio Commentary: Jon Favreau had to know how much this film was criticized but he still gives a very entertaining commentary track that shows he directed this film with pride. There are no apologies, just funny insights, detailed explanations and behind the scenes tricks. It actually makes a second viewing bearable.
  • Igniting the Sky: The Making of Cowboys & Aliens (HD, 40 minutes): An actually quite interesting series of segments include “Finding the Story,” “A Call to Action,” “Absolution,” “Outer-Space Icon” and “The Scope of the Spectacle” that dig deeper into the movie an process behind it.
  • Conversations with Jon Favreau (SD, 80 minutes): Presented in the horribleness that is SD Jon Favreau sits down and chats with the likes of Daniel Craig, Harrison Ford, Olivia Wilde, Damon Lindelof, Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci, and Steven Spielberg, Ron Howard and Brian Grazer. A very marketing driven experience, but manages to be enjoyable at times.
  • Second Screen: I quite enjoyed this, it gives you all the PiP content plus schematics, FX breakdowns and more but doesn’t disturb the actual film as it plays on a laptop or tablet. I like that it synchs between the devices (pause one and both pause), there is a lot of potential with this service.
  • My Scenes Bookmarking
  • BD-Live Functionality

The Final Word

The premise and stars of Cowboys & Aliens alone should have delivered one of the biggest movies of the year; instead we are faced with an inconsistent movie that fails to deliver. Why the movie didn’t shape up is a mystery as big as the reason that they dirtied Daniel Craig’s fingers and clothes but he had the whitest teeth in the Wild West. It is a true shame because the extras are really great and the audio and video transfers are nothing short of spectacular. The pure quality of the Blu-ray presentation makes this worth owning if you can look past the weakest part which is the film itself.

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About Michael Prince

Looking at all things Geek - news, rants and updates from the worlds of gaming, tech, blu-ray, novels, and music.