First off, Cowboys & Aliens is not a bad film. How could it be? You take two of Hollywood’s favorite topics — cowboys and aliens, then mix. You might as well make a movie combining wizards and superheroes and watch the box office numbers explode. Maybe it could also star a Hollywood legend, one of the biggest A-list actors currently working, and an up and coming starlet who is stunningly beautiful, just as Cowboys & Aliens did.
Director Jon Favreau had a lot of things going for him before filming even began. The signing of Harrison Ford was huge, and to snag Daniel Craig to replace Robert Downey Jr. (who left to film Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows), was a coup. Having Olivia Wilde fresh off of a star-making performance in Tron: Legacy was a positive as well, and adding Sam Rockwell in a supporting role is almost overkill in terms of casting. Plus the story comes from a graphic novel — albeit a moderately obscure one created by Scott Mitchell Rosenberg — and people love them some funny books these days. With all of that talent and potential floating around the movie, it would be hard to screw it up. And Favreau doesn’t. There are no real technical flaws to the film, and nothing you can really hate about it. The flips side of that is that it never really shines either.
I typically try to wait a few days after seeing a film before I begin to write my review. I like the time to mull over what I have seen and to get my thoughts in order. But with Cowboys & Aliens I went straight to the writing for the simple fact that I was afraid I would forget big chunks of the movie before I had the chance to get my impressions of them down on paper. It is a forgettable film.
Cowboys & Aliens is a very safe movie. It never really pushes the boundaries in anyway, and it seems to go down a checklist of Western stereotypes. Showdown in the dusty old town? Check. Goofy outlaws? Check. Savage Native American tribes on the warpath? Check. From scene to scene, the film jumps from one familiar pattern to another. The setting of the Old West is an interesting twist, but rather than blending the two genres, it feels more like one movie with aliens that switches to a western, then jumps back to an alien invasion film.
That said, Cowboys & Aliens has plenty going for it, including some strong performances by the leads, good effects and an inoffensive plot that is designed to hit all the right notes for the biggest amount of mass appeal.
In 1873 in the Arizona desert, a man (Daniel Craig) awakens with no clue where he is, how he got there or what the odd metal gauntlet locked to his wrist is. Three outlaws come upon him and think him an easy mark, but one fight later, the stranger has himself a new horse and clothes, and is on his way to the mining town of Absolution.
Absolution is not the most hospitable place, primarily due to the influence of Colonel Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford), whose cattle trade is the only thing keeping the town alive following the gold mines drying up. His son Percy (Paul Dano) is kind of an idiot, and a dangerous one at that, and soon the stranger is forced to kick him in the nuts. This sets off a series of events that lead to the revealing of the identity of the stranger as Jake Lonergan, a wanted outlaw — wanted by the law and by Dolarhyde for a past robbery. But before Lonergan faces justice, aliens attack the town and abscond with several people, including Dolarhyde’s son.
Grudges are set aside, and Lonergan, Dolarhyde and several townsfolk — including the saloon owner Doc (Sam Rockwell) and the mysterious Ella (Olivia Wilde) set off in pursuit.
Going into more detail would spoil chunks of the story, especially Lonergan’s journey to discover who he is and where the gauntlet came from. But even without spoilers, the plot unfolds in a traditional way, as the posse jumps from one dangerous situation to the next. Relationships are formed, mysteries are solved, important life lessons are learned in touching ways, etc., etc. If you have ever seen a movie where groups of different types of people are thrown together for a common goal, you have seen good chunks of this film. The scenarios are all fairly cliché. That wouldn’t be a major problem — it is a summer blockbuster-type movie, which are not generally known for their depth — but it affects the pacing and leaves the film feeling lumpy and missing bits as it lolls itself from scene to scene. The scenes play out like knots in a rope, with one big moment followed by a slow burn until the next big moment, and on and on, leaving a disjointed feeling.
With a movie like this, the plot is almost always going to be secondary to the action, but there isn’t all that much action to begin with. Sure, there are the odd fights here and there, but none of them are really spectacular, with the possible exception of the first attack on the humans, and the final battle. The end result is a film that lacks a certain spark but can still entertain, to a degree.
Craig manages to make the most with the role, and has a certain cool to him that is hard to deny, while Harrison Ford turns a dull role into an interesting one. Olivia Wilde also looks very pretty and besides that, her character has some of the most interesting reveals in the film. All of the principles do their jobs well, but some of the supporting characters are a bit of a drain — not necessarily the actors themselves, but the characters. Two in particular stand out as being a bit of a waste: Emmett (Noah Ringer) and Nat Colorado (Adam Beach). Both actors are likeable enough, but the characters are right out of a made-to-order catalog. Emmett is a scared kid along on an insanely dangerous quest for no adequately explained reason, while Nat is the son that Dolarhyde never wanted. They are both just examples of the lazy writing that plagues the film throughout, and are shoehorned in to give an almost artificial sense of emotional attachment.
Putting that aside, the biggest problem with the film is the inconsistencies, of which there are many. To discuss the final battle in detail would be an unforgiveable spoiler in any movie, but one detail worth discussing is the aliens, who seem to be invincible one moment as they shrug off bullets, but are then destroyed by getting hit in the face with a big stick. Bullets can’t touch them, but arrows and spears can… at least until the plot calls for it, then bullets can hurt them again. It isn’t a major deal, just an example of the lack of thought that went into it.
Again, without going into spoilers, the aliens are also very dumb at times. Dumb to the point that it is something of a wonder that they would have survived evolution. Their battle tactics are akin to those of Leroy Jenkins, as they rush out into battle with a suicidal glee, apparently forgetting that they are, in fact, an advanced alien race.
Then there is Olivia Wilde’s character of Emma. Olivia Wilde is beautiful. She is a stunning example of womanocity, and she stands out. Yet as she wanders around the desolate town of Absolution, filled with tough frontiersmen who like to gamble and drink, no one seems to even notice or care about her. It is as if she has the power of invisibility, because not a single character so much as speaks to her except to give the odd “ma’am.” Again, it isn’t a big deal, but it is almost as if the details of the film are a minor inconvenience.
There are plenty more oddities just like it, like the fact that Lonegan apparently lives within a few hours ride from Absolution but no one has a clue who he is on sight. Or how the kid who played Aang in The Last Airbender portrays Keith Carradine’s grandson. On their own, none of these minor quibbles are an issue — in fact they are hardly worth mentioning — but when they keep popping up they take you out of the moment, and the story just isn’t compelling enough to suck you back in.
Cowboys & Aliens is not a bad movie. The cast is rock solid and numerous moments that would be otherwise be just plain boring are made enjoyable through the acting. Craig and Ford together are formidable, Olivia Wilde proves that she belongs on all the “up-and-comer” lists, and again, there are both cowboys and aliens. But, the plot is just lackluster and borders on dull at times. The inconsistencies are annoying, but they could all easily be overlooked if the film had more of a spark. Instead it just seems to jump from one scene to the next with no real excitement behind it.
There is still the outline of a fun summer blockbuster deep within Cowboys & Aliens, but you will need to find it on your own. All the pieces were here for a big and fun summer movie, but they just never come together.