Sometimes all a movie needs is one really catchy title to suck people into shelling out 10 bucks to see it on the big screen…even if that title is as ludicrous sounding as “Cowboys and Aliens.” I remember the audience’s reaction when I saw that trailer for the first time in the theaters. The actors looked interesting, the set up looked tense, and people were very curious as to what they were watching, then the title came up and everyone started laughing. I mean really, what’s next, Cavemen vs. Robots? Pirates vs. Angels? Vikings vs. Vampires? So does this movie’s talent supersede its silly sounding title? You’re about to find out. Set in 1873, Arizona territory, an outlaw (Daniel Craig) wakes up in the middle of nowhere and wanders into a town called Absolution. He has no idea who he is, what is name is, or how he got there, all he knows is he has a strange mechanical shackle device attached to his wrist. The town he stumbles into is under the control of Colonel Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford), who knows the outlaw as Jake Lonergan, and wants him behind bars for the crimes he committed against Dolarhyde.
However, everything changes when mysterious lights in the sky appear and alien spaceships attack Absolution, snatching several townspeople and flying away with them. Lonergan’s special shackle is the only weapon capable of defeating these alien invaders, and the mysterious Ella Swenson (Olivia Wilde) is the only person who knows about the aliens and their connection to Lonergan. Now they must band together and put their differences aside to stop a threat unlike any this world has ever seen. For those wise enough to look past this movie’s silly premise will be pleased to know this movie takes itself VERY seriously. This isn’t one of those movies that is so stupid it’s awesome or so awesome it’s stupid, the title may sound weird but everything in this movie is gritty, dark, and dead serious. The movie balances the worlds of science fiction and western genres perfectly, each genre incorporating its own unique aspects and paying proper homage to western and sci-fi films. The way the film starts off is actually quite brilliant in its simplicity: focusing on a man with no memory who somehow has the key to saving the world. This allows the audiences to feel connected to the journey of the lead hero, we know about as much information as we do and the more we follow him, the more learn about his past and how it connects to the film’s primary situation: the aliens.
Alien movies generally require people to have state of the art technology with humans always curious to learn more about them, and how their culture/weapons work etc. Here, the aliens are treated, as one would expect of 1873 cowboys. They refer to them as demons and were given enough information about how everything functions with the aliens that we're not left with too many head scratching questions or unnecessary long drawn out “alien explanation” scenes. This goes well in the development of the action sequences. The film is not a nonstop action roller coaster ride, were given plenty of time to develop our characters and admire the well-shot desert landscape, creating intense combat scenes and learning more and more about the story’s mystery. In addition, the action scenes are not that unbelievably absurd (sounds odd coming from a movie called Cowboys and Aliens right?). Nothing is too outrageous; it’s all handled with realistic precision but fantastical flare, making it enjoyable without becoming over the top. As I said before, this movie takes itself VERY seriously.
Now, let’s talk about our titular heroes: the cowboys. Director Jon Favreau (Iron Man, Elf) knows what he’s doing when he picks actors for his films, and you couldn’t have picked a better cast of unlikely allies as Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford. Two cinematic bad asses put together for the first time and the result is just as cool as one would expect. I seriously think Craig’s best work is right here in this movie; he says very little yet proves his character is not a cowboy you want to tangle with. He commands interest and respect the minute you first see him take out a gang of outlaws, just minutes after waking up in the middle of nowhere with not a clue as to who he really is.
Craig never ceased to amaze me; he blends beautifully into this western world and handles everything from aliens to Harrison Ford with style. Speaking of Ford, age has certainly not diminished his reputation as an excellent actor. Ford’s character is more than just a despicable crook, he has compassion, he has pride, and Ford maintains this character complexity from start to finish. He makes everything about this film feel as old and western scented as the rest of the scenery does, and Ford’s chemistry with Craig works amazingly; in both their performances and the sharp writing, that forces these two together.
Olivia Wilde, beautiful as always and as always, has her acting talents restricted in a very rigid, limited role. Ella’s character serves little purpose to the film or the audiences as lovely looking plot advancement; the character offers no personality or depth and it looks even worse when compared to hot shots like Craig and Ford. Now mind you, Wilde is a fine actor and this fault does not fall squarely on her face but more on the role that was written for her.The role allows very little elbowroom to be creative or, god forbid, have an identity outside of alien exposition. Had she been given more of a meatier role to chew on, she would have come off more as a character and less like a plot point. The supporting cast all offer great performances, like Sam Rockwell and Clancy Brown; both do very well and are fan favorites of mine. Cowboys and outlaws are all well and good but, what about the other half of the coin, what about the aliens? Truthfully, the only reason I saw this movie IS for the aliens (I’m not a fan of westerns but throw in something weird like aliens, and I’m a happy film fan…well almost).
The alien’s appearance, design, and their technology all look fine and dandy no problems there, Favreau didn’t waste any money making these aliens look just as creepy and intimidating as you’d expect from an evil alien invasion force. The problem is the aliens lack any kind of characterization and despite the fact they had advanced technology and sophisticated weaponry, they act more like brooding gorillas or ogres then intelligent beings from another planet. I found this to be disappointing as the aliens lacked any genuine interest. They were crude, simplistic and outside of their appearances, unoriginal and I didn’t feel it really connected with the film’s tone and nature. The actors, the story, the mood, it’s full of depth, intensity and tension, but the aliens primal personalities make you feel like the movie dropped a few IQ levels when developing them. Another beef I had was the film’s sense of humor: there was none! I’m not expecting this movie to be chock full of chuckles but a little bit of humor goes a long way and it would have helped lighten the mood of the movie a bit. Sam Rockwell’s character seemed ripe for humorous moments but wasn’t utilized enough, so for that I was a bit disappointed.
So all in all, “Cowboys and Aliens” proves that title does not dictate behavior. Despite its bizarre story and title, this movie delivers an excellent mix of two polar opposite genres with sharp writing, beautiful cinematography, and two fantastic leads that should have been put together a long time ago. Favreau really knows what he’s doing; any other director I feel would have botched this premise but Favreau not only made it work he made it damn good to watch too. Craig and Ford are flawlessly cast and the action scenes are fun and well designed. The lack of humor however was a bit disappointing, as was Olivia Wilde’s character and the aliens could have benefited from a bit more thought processing. Whatever you do, don’t let the title or premise fool you, this seriously is a serious good time.
Cowboys and Aliens gets an 8 out of 10.