The title carries an important distinction in Cowboys & Aliens: it’s not versus. Oh, the two sides fight, shooting, kicking, clawing, chewing, and mobbing with the best of them. What is insinuated, and is the eventual result, is a meeting of two genre hive minds, brought together with the best of intentions.
Intentions only carry something so far though. The focus here is on a glossy, multi-million dollar western flick loaded with character. Archetypes are here en masse, sternly developed for their emotive strengths when it counts.
If the whole thing comes off a little dry though, you’re not alone. Despite the best of efforts, Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford take a character arc and ram it through the center of a simple search and rescue. The aliens seem more like a plot device to disrupt familiar gunpoint situations, conveniently attacking at the proper tension-driven highs.
The whole thing is grounded by genre formalities, from the wanted outlaw to the gruff business man down to the sole female character who isn’t who she says she is. Actually, that last one is a little more complicated than that, which sort of turns Cowboys & Aliens into a sexist little yarn, but look, special effects!
Aliens have plunked themselves down in one singular location, playing their hand during the scouting phase for the rest of the world. They’re here for gold, something never explained other than its value. Is it worth traveling through interstellar space to kick off a species vs species war to make wedding rings? Maybe that’s why jewelry is so expensive…
They also rope up humans, in keeping with the western theme (see: gold rush). That’s to figure out our weakness, because blowing humans up on their own property and shooting them with jolting weaponry didn’t make it obvious enough. In other words, no, the alien stuff isn’t as well thought out, planned, or even considered apparently, but it’s all built around the stable, adequate effects. Insectoid beasties munch on the vintage populace, people fight back, and the credits roll. No one will call the invasion complex. The important thing is that it has some fun doing it, and that the Cowboys part tells a familiar yarn with energy.
You’ll be hard pressed to find the grain structure hiding underneath this Universal encode. It’s there… probably. One place it’s definitely not is the nighttime stuff, split around 60/40 with the daylight scenes. Black levels, while never truly awful, water the image down. There’s no depth or zest tossed around, just a flaccid pit of mush. It’s the polar opposite when the sun rises.
Worse, those scenes shot within the dark flatten out the fine detail, smooth, texture-less faces dominating the hi-def landscape. Detail is sparsely distributed, close-ups unnaturally bland, and environments deadened. Nothing can be further than the truth on the flipside, New Mexican landscapes staggering in their beauty and resolution. From tall grass to rocky outcroppings, the disc soars as it soaks up the light. Facial detail plops itself into the mix too, a relief after the clumsily constructed material elsewhere.
While saturated, much of the palette is considerate of the setting. Dusty and harsh, contrast will wash out lighter aspects with a clear intention, while earthy browns, oranges, yellows, and grays deliver a precise look. Flesh tones stick with a bronzed hue, worrisome if not overdone to some of the extremes seen in recent days.
Universal has cared for this expensive source material, as no signs of aliasing, flicker, or other anomalies creep in. This is a great encode, keeping pace with bolting aliens, explosions, and kicked up dirt as if it’s not even trying. That’s cause to believe the faults of the nightly-based scenes are on the original photography. What’s hard to accept is how such an expensive, glitzy, film-based source can look so cheaply constructed and digital sometimes.
Summer movies continue to pour onto the format, making themselves heard through ludicrously loud, deep, bass. Cowboys & Aliens is no exception. This is world class audio design from its initial opportunity to wow the listener to its closing bells. The initial full-scaled assault is around a half-hour in, and it’s relentless. Explosions rattle off, alien engines roar as they pass, shotguns pop to ill-effect, and it’s all completed by the best bass that Hollywood could possibly offer.
It’s a multi-faceted track though, one that appreciates what can be done with those quieter, terrifying moments too. Characters eventually find an overturned ship to take shelter in, an alien bouncing around the interior making loose boards creak. The effect is flawless. That’s combined with the sound of water running through the hull as rain dampens the exterior, dripping into specific locales, and switching based on camera moves.
This is all a set-up for the blitzing finale, one where aliens leave their ship confines to take it to the humans. Horses stampede, people yell, guns are fired, explosions happen, and the end result is aural bliss. What matters is that none of the elements are lost to the aggressive low-end, the highs equally punchy and exploitative of the system’s capabilities.
It’s almost comical the disc comes loaded with D-Box support. That’s like saying you still need a chair to shake in tandem with your house once the subwoofer launches. That, or maybe it’s something to do while looking through the generic BD-Live portal. Who knows.
Fluff aside, this is a great disc long on content and short on bullet points. Director Jon Favreau delivers his thoughts on the project via a commentary, continuing through a picture-in-picture U-Control feature. The latter carries plenty of snippets from other sources as well and is used with regularity. Five conversations are chats Favreau had with cast and crew, including one with Steven Spielberg, Ron Howard, and Brian Grazer.
Igniting the Sky is a five piece making-of that runs for 40-minutes, is well produced, and carries numerous tidbits on the production. Universal adds Second Screen support if you have an iOS device, and there’s an extended cut of the movie that adds another 15-minutes to the main feature.