Movie Review – Cowboys & Aliens (2011)

by HELEN GEIB

A man wakes up in the New Mexico desert. He has amnesia. He also has the instincts and reflexes of a gunfighter, a photograph of a woman, and a strange metal cuff on his left wrist. He wanders into the nearest town. They recognize him there. It’s not a happy reunion. That night the town is attacked by raiders in mysterious airships and many people are taken. A posse is formed. The man travels with them. After the first bad night on the trail, only the stalwart few regroup to continue the search.

Indulge me for a moment while I talk about what I thought Cowboys & Aliens would be and what it turned out to be. As far as the basic premise goes, the movie is exactly what I expected; after all, the title screams mash-up of Westerns and alien invasion sci-fi. Because it’s a mash-up I mostly thought it would be wild and crazy, probably tongue-in-cheek, or much less likely but still possible, a somewhat serious-minded revisionist take on the “cowboys and Indians” subgenre.

Cowboys & Aliens is a standard fare Western. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t say that like it’s a bad thing. I like Westerns. On the available evidence, director Jon Favreau and just about everyone else involved in making Cowboys & Aliens likes Westerns too. It’s entertaining and I enjoyed watching a new Hollywood Western playing up there on the big screen at my local multiplex. But it’s hard to see the aliens as much else than a gimmick designed to secure funding for a big-budget movie in a moribund genre.

The fairest verdict on the story is probably to say that it gets the job done. I would have liked something a bit less predictable.* On the other hand, I can see how an old standby Western plot could seem fresh and new to many in the audience, including most people under 40.

The script does contribute some sharp dialogue and it’s a pleasure to watch the fine cast deliver it. Daniel Craig plays his amnesiac outlaw as a classic good-badman. Harrison Ford is in excellent character actor form as the crusty rancher and Civil War veteran who’s been throwing his weight around town for far too long; interestingly and unexpectedly, the old man is the film’s most complex character. The ever appealing Adam Beach is his underappreciated right hand man, while the ever reliable Sam Rockwell is a treat as a tenderfoot who comes along to rescue his kidnapped wife.

After the acting and the New Mexico scenery, the film’s greatest asset is its old West milieu. Cowboys & Aliens shines when it focuses on the sights and sounds of its dilapidated never-was mining town and its varied and variously costumed cast of characters.

3 stars

*Those are killed who you expect to be killed, those are rescued who you expect to be rescued, and events otherwise generally unfold as expected. The reveal of one character’s true identity might have been a surprise if the ads hadn’t given it away.

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The 2008 Western Appaloosa stars Ed Harris and Viggo Mortenson as lawmen-for-hire in 1880s New Mexico.

8 responses to “Movie Review – Cowboys & Aliens (2011)

  1. I really wanted to like this movie because I love Westerns. And I did, mostly, enjoy it for the elements you talk about. It felt a little labored at times, as though everyone was trying too hard to hit every mark that makes a ‘classic’ Western. It reminded me of another valiant attempt to revive the genre, “Silverado”, a movie that had wonderful characters and moments but just didn’t quite come together and satisfy.

  2. I hadn’t watched this film yet but from what I hear, whether or not people and critics liked it they all agree on the fact that, in the end they wished that it was “just a Western”; apparently adding aliens to the film was a misstep but I’ll check it out regardless. I do love Westerns. :O)

  3. Nice review Nir. When you go to see a movie called ‘Cowboys and Aliens,’ you don’t expect high art, and that’s fine by us. But if the film itself has problems with taking itself too seriously, that spells trouble, mainly because when you have five writers that’s never a good sign. Still somewhat fun entertainment. Check out my review when you can!

  4. @Miriam: “Silverado” is a very apposite comparison. With both films you got the feeling that the filmmakers knew they’d never have another chance to make a Western, and were overly determined to make the most of this one.

    @Nir: Looking at “Cowboys & Aliens” as an alien abduction movie, the 1880s old West setting is a nice twist on the familiar. However, looked at as a Western (and the Western genre elements clearly predominate), the aliens don’t bring much to the table. Swap them out with bandits with the latest repeating rifles and a gatling gun or two and you have pretty much the same movie.

    @Dan: The five writers showed especially in the dialogue: sometimes sharp and clever, sometimes clunky and labored.

  5. Now I have to see this. Messy or fun? I’ll let you know soon!

  6. The hype prior to the film put much emphasis upon the huge sums spent making it. While it’s a thoroughly professional product, I could not see evidence of more than normal special effects or other production values. I therefore wonder if much of the money did not go into a production pit (evidenced by an amazing number of names on the producer list), or into a reworking of a failed early product (evidence by a very long list of writers, which often is a sign of script doctors who needed to be called in). LIsten closely to the dialog and you’ll hear strange shifts from 19th century structured sentences to 21st century colloquial grunts, something a good single screenwriter would avoid.

    • I had the same thought about the money not showing on the screen. With a budget like that I’m going to be looking for “Transformers” level effects, which the movie doesn’t need or have.

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