Cowboys & Aliens (Review)
Cowboys & Aliens delivers exactly what the title and trailer indicate–nothing more and nothing less–and whether that is a good thing or a bad thing depends entirely on how entertaining said title and trailer appear to be.
It’s not always best to judge a film by the marketing materials. Sometimes, they just turn out completely differently. For example, the excellent moody trailer for Battle: Los Angeles gave way to an irritatingly derivative and bland action movie, while the horrendous marketing for X-Men: First Class ended up turning into one of the flat-out best movies of the year. On the other hand, there are films that are completely and totally unsurprising. Cowboys & Aliens is just that, delivering precisely what it appears it would, with absolutely no surprises. Picture an Old West setting, with a sudden alien invasion, and you have the movie. Ridiculous? Yes. Awesome? Sometimes.
Cowboys & Aliens opens with a man (Daniel Craig) waking up in the middle of the desert with a futuristic-looking device on his wrist and no memory of who he is. After brutally thwarting a trio of would-be bounty hunters, he arrives in the nearby town, only to be immediately locked up; the man is, in fact, a dangerous outlaw named Jake Lonergan. It turns out that Jake is also sought after by an equally dangerous man, a former colonel named Woodrow Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford), for stealing some gold. At the same time, a mysterious woman (Olivia Wilde) cannot take her eyes off Lonergan and keeps inquiring where he has come from. Just when Dolarhyde seems ready to kill anyone in order to get his hands on Lonergan, aliens swoop in on the town, laying waste to buildings and scooping up the townsfolk. Lonergan’s wrist device starts glowing and beeping, and transforms into a cannon that blows one of the spaceships apart. Lonergan and Dolarhyde decide to set aside their violent dispute to work together against this powerful threat and save the abducted people.
Though fun, Cowboys & Aliens is a remarkably stupid film. This is, as the title suggests, a movie about cowboys fighting aliens. It’s a very formulaic Western action movie with a strong sci-fi twist. Thankfully, the film seems generally aware of the absurdity of its own crossover. While it generally takes itself extremely seriously, it’s not an overtly dark film and it knows how to have fun with a sort of tongue-in-cheek humor that keeps the tone from getting too heavy. In other words, it’s perfectly characteristic of a summer action movie.
Cowboys & Aliens hits almost every single beat of the sci-fi and Western genres, which has the slight but occasionally glaring disadvantage of coming across as generic. Whether or not “generic” can be substituted with “classic” here will be completely subjective. There is certainly nothing revolutionary here, right down to the whole “aliens are here and want our resources” plot thread. The aliens themselves have a couple of neat visual touches but overall don’t look as creative as I would have hoped. I do admire the resemblance to Annunaki gods, but aside from a small resemblance to those Babylonian deities the overall design of the aliens is somewhat uninspired. There is also one of almost every stock character: the silent badass, the gruff villain, the mysterious woman, the preacher, the skeptic doctor, and the Indian. Most of the cast is not given much to do from the script that has been worked over by an army of writers since the project’s inception in 1997: Daniel Craig broods a lot, Olivia Wilde stares and says mysterious things, and nearly everyone else just fills in the gaps with cheesy dialogue. The only member with any substance is Harrison Ford as Dolarhyde, which turns out to be a treat: Ford proves that he’s still got it, as a snarling villain that eventually reveals a great deal of depth.
Just because the movie is a little generic doesn’t mean that it can’t be entertaining. When it’s not trying to cram in every cliche of Western and sci-fi movies, Cowboys & Aliens is a very loud and muscular action picture. Daniel Craig, who introduced a dark and ruthlessly badass edge to the James Bond reboots, is equally tough here–less than five minutes into the film he dispatches three men with startling brutality. Many other characters and nameless villains are similarly dispatched by Lonergan. The large-scale battle sequences between the cowboys and aliens are appropriately exciting, and director Jon Favreau keeps his camera from getting too close or shaky. If there’s one thing the movie is good for, it’s the thrills.
There is nothing at all surprising in Cowboys & Aliens. Everything that the film has to offer is indicated in the title and the trailer, and how much audiences will enjoy the movie depends entirely on how entertaining the trailer looked. I personally felt only moderate excitement for the film, and ended up being fairly entertained. There’s not a lot in the film that doesn’t work, though the degree to which it all does work is nothing revolutionary or noteworthy. That said, the idea behind the film had the potential to fail magnificently. The fact that it does not do so, and even manages to be fairly entertaining, is worthy of praise for Favreau and company. I’d say if you think it looks fun, you’ll definitely enjoy it. Skeptics won’t find anything to change their minds.
Score: *** (out of 5)
Rated: PG-13 for intense sequences of western and sci-fi action and violence, some partial nudity and a brief crude reference.