The combination of the Western genre and science fiction is nothing new in Hollywood. In my mind, “Firefly” (briefly) perfected the mix in the early 2000s but it was only the descendant of “Westworld”, the original “Star Trek” series, and a host of other films and television shows that found a natural cross-pollination between the Old West and the vastness of space. I cannot, however, remember a film that so purposefully and blatantly threw the two themes together without any measure of pretense like “Cowboys and Aliens” does (at least not a mainstream film). Everything you really need to know about “Cowboys and Aliens” is right there in the title: it is two hours of cowboys fighting aliens. And on some level you have to respect director Jon Favreau and the powers that be behind this film for being so bold and open about the film’s subject matter, even if the finished product doesn’t quite live up to that boldness.
When Jake Lonergan (Daniel Craig) wakes up in the New Mexico desert, he finds a strange metal bracelet strapped to his wrist and he cannot remember who he is or where he came from. Upon his arrival in a local town, he is promptly identified and arrested as a notorious bandit who recently robbed a stagecoach carrying gold belonging to a tough rancher named Woodrow Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford). As Lonergan is about to be handed over to Dolarhyde, a group of alien spaceships roar into town firing devastating guns and snatching up hostages, including Dolarhyde’s son. Suddenly the bracelet on Lonergan’s wrist begins to makes noises and converts itself into a powerful gun with which he is able to shoot down one of the ships. Soon after he remembers that he and his woman (for lack of a better term) were also abducted at one point and so he joins in the hunt for the aliens along with Dolarhyde, Doc (Sam Rockwell), and Ella (Olivia Wilde), a mysterious outsider who seems to know a thing or two about him. What they discover forces all differences and conflicts between cowboys, outlaws, and Indians to be put aside as former adversaries must come together to defeat a common enemy.
“Cowboys and Aliens” enjoys a pedigree that most movies can only dream of. An incredible cast, a hot director, and a highly sought-after writing team including Damon Lindelof, Roberto Orci, and Alex Kurtzman. At the beginning of the year, it seemed almost impossible that this type of quality talent could turn out anything less than a spectacular action film and yet the end result excels in only a few moments and becomes stagnant in many others. It all boils down to the fact that there’s not much done with the concept as a whole. The story isn’t so much cliché as it is just a rather bland infusion of Old West and sci-fi. The aliens look the way you’d expect aliens to look, the cowboys act the way you’d expect them to act, and the arrival of the Indians just throws the whole film into a frenzy of Western generalities. There’s absolutely nothing new in “C&A” and that causes the film to bog down when it should build momentum. Lonergan and Dolarhyde move from a fight with one group of people to a fight with another group of people and there’s very little room for development beyond some mediocre flashbacks that feel more “C.S.I”-like than I’d really care for in a major motion picture. The script is neither consistently humorous nor particularly gritty or edgy which leaves the film to tread water in the middle of a fairly shallow pool of mediocrity. I would also say that the combination of the two genres is a bit rocky; Favreau builds a pretty solid base for a traditional Western in the first 15 minutes and then suddenly the aliens arrive and throw everything off. Honestly, in spite of being a huge sci-fi fan, I would have probably preferred to see Craig and Ford in a Favreau Western than I would in a rough combo film like this one is. And while most of the actors hold their own, Wilde continues to vex me. I don’t understand her or her appeal. Clearly she’s extremely attractive and I wouldn’t call her a bad actress but I am never affected by any of her performances. That’s no different here as she just embodies the blandness of the film as a whole.
That’s not to say that there isn’t a lot to like about “Cowboys and Aliens.” Craig and Ford are both excellent and perhaps even more important, as a friend of mine said, neither of their performances brings to mind their previous, more iconic roles. This isn’t James Bond and Indiana Jones riding around in the Old West and the fact that they avoid that trap is a testament to both their abilities and the ability of Favreau as a director. I might argue that this is the best Ford has been in many, many years but then you would counter with the fact that he hasn’t had a meaningful role in many, many years. Touché. Seriously, though, “C&A” serves as a reminder that Ford is still a very capable, charismatic actor who deserves better than middling rom-coms like “Morning Glory” or childhood-erasing disasters like the fourth “Indiana Jones” movie. Rockwell provides solid comedic relief though considering the overall humorlessness of the film he almost seems out of place. The action sequences are all very good and the infusion of CGI and special effects is seamless (even if the aliens themselves are somewhat lackluster). And it is, if nothing else, wholly entertaining, the base component of any summer blockbuster.
“Cowboys and Aliens” has some value and certainly provided me with an enjoyable afternoon in the middle of a busy work week. I would also hold out hope that it could lead to some better roles for Ford and a rejuvenation of his magnificent career. Yet it seems to be simply uninspired and that takes away from the immense fun I expected to get from a film as boldly titled as “Cowboys and Aliens.”
I’ve found that "B-" films are the hardest to write about,
For a deeper look at the "could have been better as a Western" thought I expressed above, check out the coverage by Anomalous Material.