Movie Review: Cowboys & Aliens

By Matthew Huntley

August 3, 2011

Wow, James Bond is a lot grosser up close.

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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.

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