New on DVD/Blu-ray: Cowboys and Aliens (2011)

On paper, it sounded like a great idea. Cowboys + aliens = blockbuster! Well, not quite. But it was certainly a promising enough premise to get Jon Favreau (of “Iron Man” movies fame) to direct, not to mention James Bond himself, Daniel Craig and Han Solo aka Harrison Ford to star. The idea was intriguing, but the execution? I’m still not sure. Now you can find out what went wrong (or right) with “Cowboys and Aliens” when the film flies onto DVD and Blu-ray on December 6th, 2011 courtesy of Universal Studios Home Entertainment.

It’s 1873 when gunslinger Jake Lonergan (Daniel Craig) awakens in the Arizona desert with no memory of his past and a mysterious metal shackle encircling his wrist. Stumbling into the nearby town of Absolution, Lonergan discovers a tightly closed community that takes its orders from the iron-fisted Colonel Woodrow Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford) — and Dolarhyde has a bone to pick with Lonergan. But the colonel’s influence wanes when the desolate city is attacked by monsters that drop from the sky with blinding force and abduct the helpless townsfolk one by one. As Lonergan’s memory slowly returns, he realizes he holds a secret that could give the town a fighting chance against the alien force. With the help of mysterious beauty Ella (Olivia Wilde), he assembles a posse comprised of former opponents: townsfolk, Dolarhyde and his boys, outlaws and Apache warriors. United against a common enemy, they prepare for an epic showdown for survival.

Gunslingers! Indians! Aliens?

That’s the intriguing combo that got “Cowboys and Aliens” made. Heck, it’s right there in the title. And the more you delve into the DVD/Blu-ray’s special features, you realize that it’s the concept that convinced everyone who got involved in the movie. And why wouldn’t they? We’ve all played cowboys and Indians as kids. It’s as old as cops and robbers. Throw a monkey wrench like aliens in there, and you’ve got yourself something you haven’t considered before. So the idea of turning that concept into a movie? The possibilities were simply too good to pass up.

The plot proper is simple enough: When alien invaders start harvesting humans in the Old West, it’s up to an amnesiac cowboy (who also happens to be a wanted outlaw, though he doesn’t know that, being all amnesiac and such) to save the day. Armed with an alien blaster on one hand (the only thing capable of bringing down the outer space intruders), Daniel Craig proceeds to blast aliens, romance a mysterious Olivia Wilde, and butt heads with a gruff Harrison Ford. It’s your classic Western storyline. Minus, you know, the aliens in flying spaceships, I mean.

When you get right down to it, the idea of watching cowboys (with six-shooters!) allied with Indians (with bows and arrows!) battling CGI alien creatures in a familiar Western setting is the type of ideas that fanboys live for. (The fact that the film started life as a comic book makes sense.) “Cowboys and Aliens” always looks like it should work, but it never really quite comes together. It’s hard to explain why, but maybe the best way to describe the film is that, well, it just doesn’t work, because every time it seems like it might work, the spectacle of a cowboy shooting an alien with a six-shooter completely throws you off. In a word, it’s so “out there” it borders on being ridiculous. Which is a shame, because there are parts of “Cowboys and Aliens” that are very good.

Daniel Craig in Cowboys and Aliens (2011) Movie Image

Despite the sci-fi premise, Jon Favreau has actually crafted a surprisingly gritty Western. Lonergan is a tough hombre, and the chiseled, perfectly grizzled Daniel Craig plays the part like James Bond in an Old West setting. When we first see Lonergan, he’s woken up in the middle of nowhere, then proceeds to kill three men with swift and brutal efficiency. Needless to say, the film is at its best before the aliens ever show up. Then again, all that could just be my bias for Westerns talking. Perhaps, at the end of the day, I kept asking myself “what could have been” had Favreau and company played this as a straight Western with a studio budget. Alas, alas…

The acting, action, and production values are stellar, not surprising given the film’s A-list credentials in front and behind the camera. Who would have thought such a classical Brit like Daniel Craig would make such a great, convincing Western cowboy? Olivia Wilde is appropriately enchanting as the mysterious gal who sidles up to our hero, and Harrison Ford as Dolarhyde, the Big Man on Campus, offers up just the right combination of meanness and vulnerability. Sam Rockwell is amusing in a supporting roll, and keep an look out for young Noah Ringer of “Avatar: The Last Airbender” fame (or is that infamy?).

The “Cowboys and Aliens” DVD/Blu-ray Combo Pack comes in two discs — the Blu-ray and standard DVD. You also get digital copy and Ultraviolet options. Special features include a feature-length audio commentary track with director Jon Favreau, along with an extended version of the film using the “Second Screen” option ala the disc’s Pocket BLU interactive component.

Other extras include a “Conversations with Jon Favreau” featurette, where Favreau sits down with the film’s three main castmembers (Harrison Ford, Daniel Craig, and Olivia Wilde) and producers Steven Spielberg, Ron Howard, Brian Graser, and writers Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci, and Damon Lindelof, on separate tracks. Basically a loose sit-down “let’s talk about this movie we just did” type sidebar that runs about 15-20 minutes for each segment. (Though curiously Wilde only gets 10 minutes. What’s up with that?) It would have been nice if there was an option to watch all the segments without having to stop and start each one individually, but eh, minor nitpick. The last featurette is “Igniting the Sky: The Making of Cowboys and Aliens”, which should be pretty self-explanatory. You get over 40 minutes of behind-the-scenes goodness here.

The fanboy in me badly wanted “Cowboys and Aliens” to work. If anything, the film convinces me that it could have been an excellent Western. I’m just not so sure about all the sci-fi stuff…

Buy “Cowboys and Aliens” on DVD or Blu-ray from Universal Studios Home Entertainment on December 6th, 2011.

Cowboys and Aliens (2011) Movie Blu-ray Cover