Film Review: Cowboys & Aliens

A title like “Cowboys & Aliens” necessitates a massive suspension of disbelief. From such a premise, one can expect either a stupid-but-fun adventure romp or just flat-out stupidity. As directed by Jon Favreau, however, “Cowboys & Aliens” somehow manages to take this set-up and execute it with tongue nowhere near cheek. The result is an occasionally fun, yet ultimately forgettable summer blockbuster that fades from memory the second after you exit the theater.

The film stars Daniel Craig (“Quantum of Solace”) as Jake Lonergan, a man who awakens in the middle of the dessert to find out he has lost his memory. The only clues he has regarding his lost memories are the shaky memories of a woman and a very anachronistic piece of technology equipped to his wrist. Riding into a nearby town, Lonergan encounters an assortment of Old West archetypes—the drunken preacher (Clancy Brown, “The Green Lantern”), the mild-mannered, jittery saloon owner (Sam Rockwell, “Iron Man 2”) and the mysterious, hard-as-nails dame (Olivia Wilde, “Tron: Legacy). Things take a turn for the sci-fi, however, when a squad of alien ships begins bombarding the town and abducting civilians, including the son of wealthy businessman Woodrow Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford, “Extraordinary Measures”). Eager to get their loved ones back, the townsfolk team up with Lonergan and set out to find the aliens’ headquarters.

As it stands, “Cowboys & Aliens” plays less like a Western/sci-fi hybrid and more like a traditional Western with sci-fi elements thrown in at random intervals. The opening shot—a slow pan across a vast dessert—seems lifted straight out of John Ford country. And, indeed, seeing classic Western characters (or caricatures) interacting with alien technology provides the film with an initial jolt of novelty. However, rather than endowing the story with an original edge, the sci-fi twist merely results in several deux ex machina moments where characters get out of a jam through the sudden intervention of futuristic technology or aliens. One of the film’s central pleasures should be how 19th century characters use ingenuity and general resourcefulness to combat both local and extraterrestrial opponents. Instead, the filmmakers have the protagonists breaking free of impossible situations through the convenient introduction of alien attacks.

What’s more, the film fails to even set up a foundation for the aliens and their nature. Towards the beginning, for example, guns are shown to have little to no effect on the creatures and their (supposed) rough exteriors. Yet, towards the end, characters are knocking off these evil E.T.s with little more than a few gunshots or a well-placed spear thrust. Such inconsistency robs the finale of its excitement and gives the impression that the filmmakers are just improvising as they go along.

Criticisms aside, the film does manage to deliver some effective action courtesy of Jon Favreau. Whereas the film could have easily fallen victim to camp and become brethren to the other, far more infamous sci-fi-ish Western “Wild Wild West,” Favreau once again displays his skills in crafting a believable, well-choreographed action set pieces. And, unlike the likes of Michael Bay, Favreau and his screenwriters (a random grouping that ranges from “Transformer” scribes Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci to “Lost” showrunner Damon Lindelof to “Nutty Professor” co-writer Steve Odekerk) actually allow their characters to expand beyond their initial characterizations.

In what’s perhaps his best role in years, Harrison Ford manages to recapture the charm and gruffness of his early, action hero days without leaning on the strength of this persona as a crutch (as in “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull”). Speaking all his lines in a whiskey-soaked growl, he manages to bring heart and charisma to a character whose dubious nature would have secured him the villain role in any other story. In addition, the film also gets effective, if underused, performances from the insanely talented Sam Rockwell and Adam Beach (“Big Love”) as well as classical character actors Clancy Brown and Keith Carradine (“Damages”).

The true star of this film, however, is Daniel Craig as the enigmatic Lonergan. Harrison Ford’s presence in this film is highly appropriate since Craig appears to be channeling elements of Ford’s Indian Jones in his performance. With his English accent lowered to a deeper, Americanized register, Craig’s voice is highly reminiscent of that famed, fedora-wearing archeologist. Likewise, while certainly able to pull off the rugged charm necessary for any action star, Craig also manages to mix in a healthy amount of pathos to his performance. Already having proved himself an effective James Bond in films in “Casino Royale” and (frankly subpar) “Quantum of Solace,” Craig here seems set to corner the American action market as well.

Sadly, the film’s excellent cast feels somewhat tainted by the inclusion of the gorgeous, yet very wooden Olivia Wilde. Though the filmmakers do their best to mask Wilde’s limitations as an actress by playing up her character’s unconventional origins, the actress’s very appearance in any frame immediately lowers the film’s delicate illusion. Gifted with an eternally dirt-free face and piercing eyes, Wilde more closely resembles a model participating in a Western-themed photo shoot than an actual character. The fact that she is meant to engage in a meaningful relationship with Lonergan only curses this film with a massive, momentum-killing deadweight in its middle section. In only a few brief flashbacks, the actress playing Lonergan’s lost love demonstrates far more personality than Wilde ever does in her entire time on screen.

While far from an out-of-this world experience, “Cowboys & Aliens” should be commended for taking an absurd concept and extracting a workable film for mass audiences. However, one cannot help but wish—amidst the avalanche of unoriginal films appearing on the summer marquees—that the film had given us something a little less standard and a bit more alien.


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