Cowboys & Aliens

Movie Information

The Story: When aliens kidnap loved ones and relatives, a gang of cowboys -- and later Indians -- set out to rescue the victims and put down the invasion. The Lowdown: It's called Cowboys & Aliens. It has both. It's hardly great cinema, but it's mostly fun within its aims.
Genre: Western Sci-Fi
Director: Jon Favreau
Starring: Daniel Craig, Harrison Ford, Olivia Wilde, Sam Rockwell, Paul Dano, Adam Beach, Keith Carradine
Rated: PG-13

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.

About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress since December 2000. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

16 thoughts on “Cowboys & Aliens

  1. Dionysis

    Funny, but just as I was clicking on this review to read it, I thought to myself ‘I bet Ken gave it 3…no, 3.5…that’s what I would give it’. And voila!

    No reason to take issue with anything in your review. I agree completely…a “good time at the movies.”

  2. DrSerizawa

    I felt my heart stop for a second during the opening credits when I saw how many screen writers there were. But thankfully Favreau managed to hold it together. Good man. I expect more good things from him.

    Though it’s not great by any means it will probably find its way into my library. At least it’s the best scifi/horror/western I’ve seen. There are more of those than most people realize.

  3. Ken Hanke

    At least it’s the best scifi/horror/western I’ve seen. There are more of those than most people realize

    Spoken like a survivor of the William Beaudine double feature Billy the Kid vs. Dracula and Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter.

  4. robert

    well, i had to say i thought i wasn’t going to be any good at all and i was at least pleasently surprised when it wasn’t completely terrible. Aside from the techinal camera issues and awkward romance ending, it was decently entertain with the help from some good performances and surprizingly bloodrushing cowboy/alien action(though i had to lower my realism levels in my brain to accept the cowboys winning lol actually i had to do that through the entire movie.)

  5. It was fun, and I think pretty much a spot on review. I’m a sucker for Westerns though, and the cinematography was fantastic.

    My biggest gripe was that Daniel Craig didn’t have a convincing American accent for me and Harrison Ford didn’t have a convincing mean guy accent for me.

  6. DrSerizawa

    There were lots of immigrants coming to the US and moving west looking for land and work all through the 19th century. It was not the least bit uncommon to see English and especially Irish immigrants in the west

  7. Ken Hanke

    Perhaps if you thought of it as someone in the process of losing his accent? It’s hard for me to say because it didn’t bother me.

  8. Dionysis

    “I’m trying to think of another film where he had an American accent.”

    Lara Croft, Tomb Raider.

  9. luluthebeast

    [b]My biggest gripe was that Daniel Craig didn’t have a convincing American accent for me and Harrison Ford didn’t have a convincing mean guy accent for me.[/b]

    Don’t care, Craig really looked the part and Ford started out mean(if I was tied between two horses and had Ford talking to me like that I’d be plenty scared!), but he had to “grow’ as a character. A fun movie that could have been better, but I would have no problem seeing it again. #13 was weak, though. She does a better acting job on HOUSE.

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