Movie Review: Cowboys & Aliens
By Matthew Huntley
August 3, 2011

Wow, James Bond is a lot grosser up close.

Cowboys & Aliens takes the Western genre about as seriously as True Grit and Unforgiven, and that comes as a surprise given the film’s premise and marketing campaign. The trailer makes it out to be this hip and ironic mix of Western and Science Fiction, and when audiences discover it mostly plays things straight, they’ll likely be disoriented. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, and I actually admired the way the movie pragmatically attempts to answer the question, how would cowboys in the Old West fend off aliens from another planet? So often in movies about alien invasions, the people are almost always modern-day citizens; but what about those who lived prior to the 20th century? Could this movie possibly pave the way for a story about cave men fighting aliens? I’m not sure how clubs would fare against lasers, but it could be interesting.

Like many viewers, I went into this movie expecting nothing more than an absurd plot with macho gunslingers battling aliens, all padded with tongue-in-cheek humor and characters with modern-day sensibilities. This is partly what I got, but director Jon Favreau never had any intention of making this movie look silly or absurd, at least not consciously. He treats the underlying genre with the utmost loyalty and sincerity. That’s not a compliment, per se, but more an observation.

All the usual Western roles are filled: the hard-nosed cowboys (Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford); the by-the-book sheriff (Keith Carradine); the strong, independent heroine (Olivia Wilde); the moral and responsible preacher (Clancy Brown); and the skinny, weapons-challenged bartender (Sam Rockwell). These characters all inhabit the stereotypical Western town, complete with a saloon with swinging doors and a town troublemaker (Paul Dano), who’s always firing his gun off like it’s a toy. He knows he can get away with it, too, because his father (Ford) more or less runs the town with his lucrative cattle business.

Suddenly, without warning, aliens in flying spaceships attack and start abducting people using long wires with hooks on the end. They take the sheriff, the troublemaker and the bartender’s wife (Ana de la Reguera), among others, and the plot proceeds to follow the cowboys and other townspeople as they try to find their loved ones. Along their journey, before the inevitable, climactic showdown, there are more alien attacks, character developments, plot revelations and death scenes. I wouldn’t dare reveal what any of these are, but I will say the movie does a superb job of setting itself up with mystery and intrigue. Many questions are posed but they’re only gradually answered to keep us interested.

The best part of the movie is the beginning. It’s full of genuine tension when Jake Lonergan (Craig) wakes up in the middle of the desert with no memory of who he is or how he got there. He must have some enemies, though, because he’s been shot and bleeding. He’s also wearing a strange metal bracelet he can’t take off. Three wandering cowboys attack him but Lonergan fights back in the way only Daniel Craig can before embarking on the remote town of Absolution, Arizona, where he learns he’s a wanted criminal. Eventually he’s arrested and questioned by Ella (Wilde), whom we think has only romantic interests in Lonergan but actually has other intentions all her own.

Colonel Woodrow Dolarhyde (Ford) knows Lonergan and claims he stole his gold. Dolarhyde demands retribution and help locating his son, especially after Lonergan demonstrates the metal bracelet on his wrist is the only weapon that can fight the aliens in equal measure.

If the movie does a good job of setting itself up, it’s not as successful paying off. I mentioned how it’s loyal to the Western genre, but that’s not to say it does anything fresh or inspired with it. For the most part, the movie lives up to its name and is essentially just cowboys and aliens duking it out, which is okay, but not terribly exciting. I mean, it’s not like we haven’t seen aliens and humans fighting on-screen before. What Favreau has done is simply mix a classic Western with an alien invasion picture, and that’s about it. The aliens themselves are stock movie creatures and could have come from any science fiction or horror film. They’re not given much to do other than abduct people and use them for experiments (which is what aliens usually do in these types of movies). Their motives aren’t really explored and they function mostly as one-dimensional villains.

Much more interesting are the human dynamics taking place, but the movie seems to use these only as a backdrop for the action and not the other way around. It’s a shame, too, because the acting is so strong, especially the formidable Craig, who may be fulfilling his usual tough-guy role, but it’s one we can’t take for granted because he’s so good in it. He and Ford are well-matched here, each playing characters unwilling to budge and their shift from enemies to allies is taut and powerful. Wilde is good, too, showing she can be more than just eye candy.

If you’re a fan of the traditional Western or alien invasion movie, you should see Cowboys & Aliens. It is a solid, albeit standard, example of its two kinds, but it’s well made with strong, effective performances. And it knows what it is. However, if what you’re looking for is a movie that does more than just combine two stable genres into one and actually tries to do something bold and unique, Cowboys & Aliens leaves something to be desired. I admired it on a technical and acting level, and I appreciated how it defies the expectations of its own title by being more than just a silly popcorn movie, but I wasn’t always entertained by it. It’s sometimes slow and the more I realized it wasn’t going to attempt to push either of its genres’ envelopes, the less I cared about it as a whole. The movie is not what I expected, but it still left me wanting more.