Cowboys & Aliens Review

There are few films these days that give you exactly what they advertise. Hollywood has turned into a hype machine that recognizes its own faults, but would rather use marketing to cover them up than to actually fix them. We just got done reviewing Friends With Benefits, which pretends not to be a romantic comedy, despite the fact that it's arguably one of the most formulaic romantic comedies I've ever seen.

Only a week later, we get a film that's the exact opposite. Odds are, when you buy a ticket for "Cowboys & Aliens", you expect to see just that... cowboys... and aliens. And that's exactly what you get. But does laying everything out for audiences in an obvious fashion add to the enjoyment of what's obviously meant as a popcorn flick, or does it make what should be a very original concept too formulaic and porous?

It may not be the perfect movie, or even the most entertaining or well-made movie, but it makes no misrepresentations or attempts to cover its own mistakes with hype and pretentiousness. What you see is what you get. And as mentioned, what you get is cowboys... and aliens.

The concept for the film is actually amazing. What if aliens landed on earth long before the industrial/space/internet age that we now live in? What if an alien species was capable to travel to earth long before we got all these science fiction films to desensitize us from the actual possibilities of an alien invasion? How would humans react to something they probably haven't even been able to fathom yet? How would they react to new technology, to "demons" out to get them for their physiology and resources? It's a topic that has never really been explored on screen, and that definitely has the potential to work.

But the keyword here is potential. Everything about "Cowboys & Aliens" can be summed up in that single word, and its ability -- or usually failure -- to reach that potential. In terms of the story, plot and writing, the concept is pretty much where the good stops in the film. Everything about the film is over-simplified. Normally, with a western, you'd expect that to be a good thing. But unfortunately, the movie is dumbed down so much that it goes beyond nuance, and ventures well into laziness.

When envisioning a film like this, you'd expect the concept of good versus evil to be a focal point of the film. Drawing from "cowboys & indians" as inspiration for its title means that the film will likely present one group of people as inherently good, and one as completely bad. And that definitely is the case in the film, only one side becomes way too nuanced, and the other remains way too one-dimensional.

The protagonists in the film can only be described as anti-heroes, for the most part. Daniel Craig is Jake Lonergan, a badass, no-nonsense cowboy who's spent most of his life as a bandit. He knows how to rob, he definitely knows how to kill, and he has no trouble kicking you in the balls. It definitely fits the actor's bill, as well as the story, but it almost feels like the character is too evil to be the protagonist of a film. Harrison Ford plays Woodrow Dolarhyde, a former colonel turned cattle rancher who's not against stretching out a few limbs and breaking a few laughs in order to get his way. For all intents and purposes, the nuances in these characters' intentions, drawn together by a group of aliens who have taken their loved ones and invaded their territory, should work. But unfortunately, the intentions of their enemies are not nuanced in the slightest.

In another alien movie we reviewed earlier this year, Super 8, the alien antagonist is presented as both a villain and a misunderstood being who just wants to go home. This allusion is completely nonexistent in Cowboys & Aliens. The aliens are bad, and they want to kill everyone on earth and steal their gold. It's as simple as that. Almost as simple as the little effort it eventually takes to take them down. For a film that draws inspiration on a game we used to play in the park as children, this would be okay. But meshed with the shade of grey in the cowboys' side of things, it doesn't really work. We're supposed to believe that the good guys could be bad, but not that the bad guys could be worked, and it's a bit of a mind-boggler.

It just seems as if the film suffers from moving in too many directions at once. The story was written by Steve Oedekerk, a well known comedy-writer with countless films under his belt as writing credits. The screenplay was then written by Alex Kurtzman, Damon Lindelof and Roberto Orci (Transformers, Star Trek). Their script was then re-worked by Mark Fergus and Hawk Ostby (Iron Man, Children of Men). And you have to think that there was some executive meddling at the hands of producers Brian Grazer and Ron Howard, not to mention the influence of director Jon Favreau. Once you realize that up to ten people could have had an influence on the script, you can probably figure out why it lacks focus.

But in the end, the plot beyond the concept doesn't really matter. You have to justify the aliens on earth, you have to figure out a way to get the humans to work together in a time that wasn't really well-known for unity, and in the end, the humans have to win, for better or for worse. It makes for an uneven story in most cases, but once you accept the plot holes as the sacrifice you make for a good popcorn flick, it shouldn't stop anyone from enjoying the film.

Unfortunately, Jon Favreau doesn't really help either. I don't like acting like I know what it's like to work behind the camera of a major motion picture, because I don't, but his techniques seem torn out of a filmmaking 101 class, and he's proven in his work in the past that he relays too heavily on extensive and elaborate action sequences and stacked casts to mask his deficiencies as an actual director. Call him the mini (or jumbo, if you will) Michael Bay. I'm not sure whether you could say that his techniques take away from the film, but he certainly doesn't add to it either. He's a studio director. He takes on jobs that don't require much effort, such as directing Robert Downey Jr. in an iron costume, or Harrison Ford playing a cowboy, and pads it with big-time special effects. It's a formula that's worked for him up to here, but it's clear that people are starting to take notice.

In the film itself, he seems to use a lot of static shots and canned techniques, like on-rails shooting and wide shots that let you get most of the action in, and it doesn't really do anyone any justice. Moreover, he completely disregards the fact that he's filming what's essentially a western, which in itself has a whole other can of worms that directors can take advantage of. It almost feels like the film was meant for another director, maybe J.J. Abrams, but Favreau was tacked on after the fact. And it's disappointing, because he's just kind of there. It's like the assistant manager at Arby's. He's there to manage shifts and help with the rush, but if he wasn't there, would it really make a difference?

Thankfully, a great cast saves the film from being entirely mediocre. Harrison Ford and Daniel Craig play exactly who you'd expect them to play. Badass cowboys who don't say much, letting their fists and guns do the talking for them. Their emotions range from annoyed, to angry, to angrier, but it works. Olivia Wilde does well in her role as well. She's not shoved down our throats or overbearing, and she compliments the two main actors well. Add to that a tremendous supporting cast which includes Sam Rockwell (The Green Mile, Iron Man 2, and pretty much everything else), Paul Dano (Little Miss Sunshine, There Will be Blood, Where the Wild Things Are), Clancy Brown (Starship Troopers, The Shawshank Redemption, Highlander), and Keith Carradine (Dexter, Damages), among others. All the actors have good chemistry and fit their roles well.

But beyond that, explosions and fight scenes can only do so much to cover up a thin plot that leaves little to be desired. Once again, you have to balance that with the fact that there really doesn't need to be much there to make a good popcorn flick. In the end, it's a movie about aliens invading the wild west. What would you expect?

That being said, watching the film, I couldn't help but feel it could have been so much more, with such a good cast, good producers and experienced writers at the helm. Instead, it can barely stand on its own to feet. But it's tough to take anything away from the film, because it really was entertaining. The action was great, and simply put, it was just a fun movie with a fun concept. It's a shame that everything else caused it to collapse at the box office, because it really feels like there could have been a whole lot more at the box office.

While disappointing in some regards, and satisfying in others, "Cowboys & Aliens" is still worth watching if you're into the sort of films that just let you turn your brain off and enjoy things blowing up. For that, the film gets a 6.5 out of 10.

Comments 2
Jonathan Szekeres's picture

Lets all hope that this brings back the western genre!!!
Not too impressed with the movie, other than Olivia Wilde's hottness. Some cool action sequences though.

George Prax's picture

Despite the setting and subject matter, it really didn't seem like a westerm. Favreau doesn't really have the nuance as a director to make such a film. Which is what really stops the film from being a really good movie. Like I said if they had another director, even someone like JJ Abrams, it would have been much better.