Cowboys and Aliens (Review)

COWBOYS & ALIENS
(7/29/11; Western, Sci-Fi)
Harrison Ford, Daniel Craig, Olivia Wilde, Adam Beach, Sam Rockwell, Clancy Brown, Keith Carradine
SCR: Alex Kurtzman, Roberto Orci, Damon Lindelof, Mark Fergus, Hawk Ostby
DIR: Jon Favreau
MPAA: PG-13 for intense sequences of western and sci-fi action and violence, some partial nudity and a brief crude reference.
1 hour 58 mins
BOX: $98,106,221

One would expect a movie called Cowboys and Aliens to be a little bit on the fun side. It’s a western with aliens! How do you mess that up? Both genres have very specific trappings that can either confine to the point of parody, or transcend to the point of inspiration. This movie does neither.

People talk tough, glower, spit and embrace rough frontier justice here but it’s all in service of a whopper of a conceit: It’s 1875 and aliens are swooping down and snatching people. Jake Lonergan (Craig) wakes up in the desert with his memory erased. Turns out he’s wanted for previous crimes, and ends up behind bars with Percy Dolarhyde (Dano), the entitled drunk son of Woodrow Dolarhyde (Ford), a cattle baron with a past, and a mean old bastard.

When the former colonel rides in to retrieve them, believing Jake to be the reason his cattle ended up mutilated, the aliens attack and snatch half the town. That’s the first big problem. We never learn why the townsfolk are being taken except to give the ragtag group that remains a reason to mount a rescue mission. And the wrong people are removed from the script at the very point they become the most interesting.

The alien subplot doesn’t fare much better. The common folks of the 19th century are helped by Olivia Wilde, who plays a sexy, revenge-seeking interstellar traveler hiding in the form of a human. Was that a spoiler? Sorry. One look at her smooth features and strange expression should tell you she’s either from another planet, or America’s Top Model.

She is also the lazy screenwriters’ all-purpose multi-tool employed to solve as many story problems as they can tax her with. She translates for the Native American characters. She also knows everything about the alien invaders, provides Daniel Craig with a love interest, and even brings all the squabbling races together by appearing naked.

But once we actually are told what earthbound element the aliens are looking for, it makes no sense. Is it fuel? Is it a commodity? If they melt it down, will it turn into an alien aphrodisiac? We are told that the aliens don’t do well in the sunlight, but during the big finale, they hold their own in the glaring sun just fine. And what exactly is that big shiny orb that is hypnotizing the prisoners?

The movie isn’t a total bust: Ford and Craig strike commanding poses and remind us what great movie stars they are. Ford even gets a couple of good monologues, even if these moments undo every previous attempt to paint his character as a rough SOB. And although the small town facades look less convincing than Hill Valley in Back to the Future, Part III (1990), Favreau has a knack for interesting locations. The finale takes place on a craggy plain of white-colored rocky hills that look particularly otherworldly.

It’s a credit to the cast and film-making team that a movie this sloppy also happens to be disarmingly entertaining. Alas, the release of Cowboys and Aliens closely follows two westerns that defined the edges of the genre’s expectations: the Coen Brothers’ True Grit (2010) used stunning cinematography as a means to convey the mythic nature and brutality of the past generations; while Rango (2011) pulled off the rare feat of taking said mythos and commenting further by casting it with talking critters, allowing absurdity to flourish.

This movie does neither.

(Universal)

— DENNIS WILLIS

Author: Dennis Willis

Dennis Willis is an award-winning producer, TV host, producer, director, editor (he preferred Avid until a torrid affair with Adobe Premiere, and the rest is history), author and film critic (print and radio). Dennis produced and hosted the TV programs Reel Life, FilmTrip, Soundwaves (1983-2008) and produces the annual Soundwaves Xmas program. He is currently the film critic on KGO Radio in San Francisco, and a member of both the San Francisco Film Critics Circle and the Broadcast Film Critics Association.

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