Cowboys & Aliens
Starring: Daniel Craig, Harrison Ford, Olivia Wilde, Sam Rockwell
Review: 3 stars (of five)
Cowboys & Aliens is a fun summer movie that’s good entertainment if measured against standard action genre fare. If you compare it to the premise, so perfectly encapsulated in the title, you’re bound to be disappointed. A high concept this high deserved a much better film, despite the pleasures Favreau and an oversized team of writers deliver.
The first surprise of the film is that it cares more about story and character than you’d expect in a movie that really needs little more than six-shooters and laser pistols. There’s no mistaking the film’s desire to play with Western stereotypes, but the laconic sheriff is quickly sidelined, Daniel Craig’s outlaw hero has a nice twist, and the evil local cattle baron, played with gusto by Harrison Ford, is a little more complex and balanced than your usual evil local cattle baron. Olivia Wilde is a lone woman, an outsider in the community, but she’s not a whore, with or without a heart of gold.
The second surprise is that the film doesn’t do more with its premise. The action is well-executed, but it could be the action from any movie with aliens (or trolls, or orcs, or whatever) being shot, speared and walloped by an unlikely band of humans. I wish the film had given me fewer minutes of strafing alien fighter ships and melee combat and more scenes like the one in which Craig leaps from the back of a galloping horse onto a low-flying spacecraft—an obvious reference to the classic Western stunt of leaping onto a moving train.
Where was the analogue of the final shootout between hero and villain—which in this case would’ve been an alien? Where were our heroes circling literal wagons, not against a horde of Apaches (who also stand against the extraterrestrials) but against robots from beyond the stars, or whatever?
The story has a few rough spots, too. While the use of Wilde’s character delivers some great story surprises that I genuinely didn’t see coming, the explanations for them are glossed over at best. The aliens are simple, vicious space monsters, great-great grandchildren of Ridley Scott’s signature creature, a concept that gets weaker in every iteration since Cameron’s Aliens. And what they’re on Earth to get—it’s funny, a deliberate play on the motivations that drove many Wild West villains, but I don’t recall it making very much sense at all.
The great thing about a title like Cowboys & Aliens is that you can instantly tell if it’s your kind of picture. If it is, expect to be entertained, but figure that your own imagination might make better use of the concept than the filmmakers did.