Jon Favreau’s Cowboys & Aliens may not be everything it could have been, but for a movie boasting six credited writers and sixteen producers, executive producers, associate producers and co-producers (with names like Spielberg, Brian Grazer and Ron Howard among them), it’s better than it has any right to be. With that pedigree, it’s actually remarkable that the resulting film feels like there’s even a drop of Jon Favreau’s style in it. Amazingly, the film feels about 75 percent Favreau—a pretty good average considering. Not surprisingly, the other 25 percent is where most of the problems lie. And, unfortunately, those problems come mostly in the final section of the film.
What we have is a hybrid of Western and sci-fi B movies. That’s not entirely a new concept. Sci-fi elements—and even more horror ones—have crept into westerns for a very long time. Anyone remember Gene Autry—in between radio broadcasts—dealing with the technologically-advanced (ray guns and robots) denizens of the underground kingdom of Murania in the 1935 serial The Phantom Empire? Of course, these days, this concept has to be gussied up a good bit, although the updates work better with the Western end of things than the sci-fi. There’s only so much you can do to tart up a Western and leave the basic—and rather spare—elements in place. The sci-fi aspect of the film works most of the time in the earlier parts of the film, where the elements are more limited and we don’t see that much of the aliens.
Conceptually, we have the “bug-eyed monsters” of the old-school sci-fi realm as our baddies, and the design of the monsters is mostly in keeping with aesthetic. Later in the film, however, the temptations of CGI start to kick in. I have no qualms about special effects being improved on, and it suits the film as Cowboys & Aliens slowly turns into a big-budget variant on William Cameron Menzies’ Invaders from Mars (1953) in the final act. I’m good with the impressiveness of the settings—even though these too are primarily computer created. But I do have a problem with how our bug-eyed monsters quickly succumb to scurrying about in the same ho-hum manner of most CGI aliens and monsters. The nifty retro identity goes South during the climax, and the effectiveness of the monsters go with it. (Even Favreau’s own 2005 film Zathura did this better.)
However, this almost feels like carping when the overall movie is so much fun. The committee-created screenplay is at least straightforward, appropriately cliched and agreeably kind of dumb—just like the sort of films that inspired it. The basic idea of an alien invasion in the Wild West is amusing, and the idea of an alien gold-rush mentality somewhat more so. Considering that the aliens have no trouble at all knocking off humans, it’s certainly a stretch that there’s any reason for them to be abducting folks to “study their weaknesses.” But, hey, that’s the kind of plot these movies usually had, and it fits. The Western tropes—the drifter who’s lost his memory (Daniel Craig), the ruthless rancher who’ll turn out OK (Harrison Ford), the clueless boob who becomes a hero (Sam Rockwell), the worthless son of the rancher who gets snatched by aliens (Paul Dano) etc.—all work. And they work, in part, because they’ve always worked.
It helps to no end, of course, that the film is so well cast. That’s one of the good things about a big production: It can afford the best cast money can buy. And in this case, it bought a perfectly chosen one. A great movie? Oh, not in the least. But it’s a good time at the movies—something all these summer releases aim for, but very often don’t achieve. Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of western and sci-fi action and violence, some partial nudity and a brief crude reference.