Movie Review Monday: Cowboys & Aliens

Cowboys & Aliens didn’t release overseas in July to the greatest press. There was much muttering that the film was a prime example of “too many cooks spoiling the broth” as it had been cobbled together by 6 writers or more, using Scott Mitchell Rosenberg’s little known graphic novel as a starting point. Some of the high profile comic creatives I follow on Twitter even went so far as to call the film “awful” and “a complete disaster.”

As a result of all this negativity, I went into the cinema with low expectations… and was pleasantly surprised. Cowboys & Aliens is admittedly nothing special – it isn’t the heart-stirring, edge of your seat adventure it could have been – but it’s very watchable, largely due to the good will generated by its cast.

Despite being a mash-up of the Sci-fi and Western genres, Cowboys & Aliens isn’t an exercise in tongue-in-cheek, winking shenanigans. The film’s serious tone is immediately established, with Daniel Craig’s Jake Lonergan waking on the dusty plains of Arizona with no memory, and a strange electronic device strapped to his wrist. Lonergan immediately kills a group of scalp-carrying bounty hunters with brutal efficiency, scattering dirt and splattering blood. So yes, Craig is very much in icy James Bond mode again for Cowboys & Aliens, and you have to wonder how the role would have been smithed to suit its original, more lighthearted star, Robert Downey, Jr..

Anyway, Lonergan’s wanderings bring him to the rundown, cowering town of Absolution, where he begins to piece together his past, and runs afoul of powerful cattle baron Colonel Woodrow Dolarhyde, played by Harrison Ford . Before these typical Western rivalries can escalate, however, aliens attack, abduct half the town (for no apparent reason), and a small disparate group of survivors – including Lonergan and Dolarhyde – form a posse to hunt down the “sky demons.”

At this point it’s worth mentioning that although he doesn’t have nearly the amount of screen time as Craig, Ford is fantastic in Cowboys & Aliens. He takes his typical “good-hearted anti-hero” onscreen persona and darkens it substantially. Ford’s Dolarhyde is a gruff old bastard you wouldn’t want to cross, but he’s also the type of permanently snarling combat veteran you want on your side.

I slipped into grinning fan girl mode every time Ford appeared in Cowboys & Aliens to dish out Dolarhyde’s special brand of tough love. And I’m not afraid to admit that one brief Ford-centred moment near the film’s end, although obvious, did bring a tear to my eye.

Cowboys & Aliens includes a surprising number of recognisable faces in what are, for the most part, actually very small, disposable parts. Of the supporting cast, the standouts by a mile are Clancy Brown as Absolution’s resident preacher – who steals every scene he’s in with his warmth and calming practicality – and Paul Dano as the preacher’s antithesis: an agitated rich boy who bullies and boozes to camouflage his cowardice.

As for Olivia Wilde as the film’s lone female character of substance, Hollywood executives are apparently still clueless about what to do with the actress on the big screen. Radiating equal parts smarts and sexiness in House (and arguably one of the best things about that TV series), in Cowboys & Aliens Wilde isn’t called on to do anything more than rehash her Tron performance, while stripping out the quirkiness for the sober Western setting.

I seem to have a spent a good chunk of this review talking about cast and performances, but that’s because they are the strongest thing about Cowboys & Aliens. Narratively, the film is just so-so, with a particularly unmemorable middle section that feels like a standard fantasy quest movie. Characters bond, have a chance to relate their back stories and run into endless trouble against backdrops that are a feast for the eyes. This said, the extra-terrestrial encounters could have done with a bit more of the Aliens-esque terror hinted at during the film’s trailer.

It may be damning praise to say that Cowboys & Aliens is a perfectly passable movie. However, you could do a lot worse when it comes to sci-fi blockbusters or genre blends, If you’re a fan of the film’s stars there’s definitely something here for you. If not, Cowboys & Aliens is a pleasant popcorn flick that at least won’t leave you feeling brain dead.


Cleric said…
Well, Aliens and their awesome tech vs Cowboys... Obviously the Aliens should win, but I guess a Hollywood movie can't let the Humans loose... unless they do. That would be EPIC! Coz 99% of the time we win :P

The trailer looks cool enough for me to watch it. I'm a sucker for awesome graphics and Sci-Fi. Although, Batlle LA was cool, but disappointing :(

I'd watch this, but that will proly be after it's been on the Cinema...

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