A stranger with no name and a mysterious past? Check. A small town filled with people who barely make ends meet and are in need of a hero? Check. A tyrant-like figure who has said small town under his thumb due to his wealth and ability to strike fear into their hearts? Check. Aliens? Che–wait, what?
The latest big-budget action blockbuster by director Jon Favreau (Iron Man) has arrived and it has all of the elements that one would expect from a film of the western genre, with a dash of extraterrestrial presence to keep everyone involved on their toes. Cowboys & Aliens begins with the classic tale of a man with no name (though in this case it isn’t because he’s such an enigmatic outlaw, but because he’s simply forgotten it) waking up alone in the desert with an injury to his abdomen and a big iron wristband that he can’t seem to remove. Soon some nefarious types stumble upon him and attempt to bring him in thinking there must be a bounty on his head. As movie history has taught us, this is not a smart move.
After disposing of the vermin, the man with no memory (played by Daniel Craig) takes one of their horses to the nearest town looking to nurse his wound. He soon stumbles upon the small gold mining town of Absolution, a place that shows little to no signs of life. It’s not that it’s uninhabited, but more that those who have chosen to remain solemnly go about their day to day activities as though even breathing sometimes feels like a chore. This is mainly due to the fact that there’s no gold to be found in these lands that were once thought to be rich of it and now the only way for the town to make money is to cater to the needs of Woodrow Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford), a wealthy cattle farmer who rules Absolution with an iron-fist thanks to being its only source of income.
The film continues to hit all the usual genre notes such as the man with no memory not wishing to get involved in the town’s problems only to have circumstances intervene from which he becomes indirectly involved — then of course the aliens show up and abduct half the town and well, he’s pretty much a team player at that point.
One of the main things Cowboys & Aliens does well is set up this completely recognizable western scenario that’s been told hundreds of times before only to do a complete one-eighty and throw space invaders into the mix. The way the film begins gets us in the mood for a good western yarn and when the aliens come and kidnap the kin of all involved — hero, townsmen and tyrant alike — it throws off the balance and these folk must put aside their differences and work together for the greater good. It’s an interesting premise and Favreau puts the pieces together well to start things off.
While this recognizable scenario trick works to the film’s advantage in the beginning, the paint-by-numbers routine does make the movie fairly predictable — even by mindless blockbuster standards. There aren’t any truly shocking moments and if you’ve seen enough of these types of films you can pretty much pinpoint everything that will happen long before it does. This doesn’t completely take away from how enjoyable the movie is; however, it certainly doesn’t make it overly memorable.
The movie is based off the graphic novel of the same name which was created by Scott Mitchell Rosenberg; however, the characters involved are different. The film’s writers (and there were many, as the script went through multiple rewrites in an attempt to get the proper mix of comedy and seriousness mixed in) proved to have a sense of humour when it came to naming the main characters. We eventually learn the man with no memory’s name is Jack Lonergan (loner, how suitable) and, well, Dolarhyde should be self-explanatory.
While the tone of the film is never really an issue, pacing definitely is. Cowboys & Aliens is kind of all over the place at times and a little slow at others. The film’s premise leads one to believe that this could be an extremely entertaining movie with loads of action and a crazy over-the-top story. That’s not what we end up with, however, as while the reasoning behind the alien invasion is decent, the minimal amount of the alien encounters that do happen throughout lack any real intensity or technology vs. old-school vibe. There’s also a number of big reveals that lack any true explanation and leave them feeling rather empty.
Craig continues to prove his worth here as a leading man taking what little he’s given in way of character and turning it into something, while Ford (as usual) steals every scene he’s in and just knows how to make things work. Olivia Wilde, who plays leading lady Ella Swenson, continues to see her star rise in Hollywood, showing once again that she has what it takes to stand toe to toe with some of the best in the business. A few other notables are Sam Rockwell, who plays Doc; Walton Goggins, who plays Hunt; and Clancy Brown, who plays Meacham. The problem is, aside from the main three (and even then it’s only the actors behind the characters that help do them justice) there’s no emotional involvement with anyone in the film. The character development is extremely thin and when any of them are killed it’s quickly realized that it doesn’t really matter. It’s unfortunate as this is the type of blockbuster movie where it helps to care about those involved and that’s just not the case here.
All this negative talk may sway you not to see the film; however it must be said that Cowboys & Aliens is an entertaining movie — just not as much as it could have been. Favreau has crafted a fine looking film with some great sets and unique looking aliens. When a face to face battle finally takes place it’s as intense and action packed as I wished the entire movie would have been. In short, Cowboys & Aliens is a fun jaunt through an alien-occupied Wild West, though don’t expect it to invade your mind long after it’s done.
Directors: Jon Favreau
Notable Cast: Daniel Craig, Harrison Ford, Olivia Wilde, Sam Rockwell
Writer(s): Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman, Damon Lindelof, Mark Fergus, Hawk Ostby