Cowboys & Aliens is the most aptly named film of this summer, mostly because I can’t think of anything else this movie could have been called except for the reciprocal, Aliens & Cowboys. That would’ve been a better fit, since after all at its heart this is an alien movie more so than a cowboy movie since everything “cowboy” in it has been done countless times before – six guns, cattle barons, deputies getting shot, etc. It’s the aliens that offer something new in this movie, and although they look like a leftover species from District 9 they at least have a clear motivation for being on Earth that I won’t spoil. Suffice to say that I’m trying to decide if there’s some kind of intended allegory here about raiding other places for natural resources, but I know director Jon Favreau is far less heavy handed or preachy as James Cameron, so I doubt it.
Anyway, as I was writing before I got sidetracked the worst I can say about Cowboys & Aliens is that it’s unoriginal because it’s the combination of every cowboy and alien movie cliché that you’ve already seen before. But let’s be honest – when has unoriginality ruined a movie, especially in this era of remakes and sequels? Favreau has proven he knows how to make a good action movie, and of the many names associated with this film are Steven Spielberg (executive producer), Ron Howard (producer), and Damon Lindelof (co-writers and producers), all of whom know something about making a good movie. In fact, this movie combines the writing team of Star Trek (Roberto Orci & Alex Kurtzman) and Iron Man (Mark Fergus & Hawk Ostby), among others, following this summer’s trend of having many fingerprints on a blockbuster screenplay.
But of course because of that you’d expect a lot. As it is, what Cowboys & Aliens has going for it is that it offers more of a mystery than the average summer blockbuster as you wonder along with star Daniel Craig who he is and what exactly these aliens want with him and the other western archetypes he’s riding with. It’s actually refreshing to watch a summer blockbuster and not know all the plot beats after the opening scenes, but soon it all falls into place, especially after Harrison Ford points out that the alien hunting posse has the requisite kid, dog, and woman that every PC action film since the mid-1990s has (I mean, I’m all for diversity, but John Wayne always managed quite well with a posse of tough-looking men). Then the movie follows what you’d expect after that, with each character hitting their required moments during the climatic alien battle to justify why they’re there in the first place, so the only mystery left is the aliens’ motivation, which is quietly explained away as a resource grab.
Yet despite this Favreau does a commendable job of being respectful of the western genre despite engaging in almost all of the modern-day clichés associated with it. There’s no point in the film where the audience is telegraphed to roll eyes at, which is why it’s acceptable to mix such different genres so effectively. Had Favreau directed the film otherwise (showing favoritism to one over the other), it would have been hard to accept the blending of such disparate genres seriously.
So while the film creates the right atmosphere, the most disappointing aspect of the film falls on Harrison Ford’s acting. Ford is such a charismatic, screen-grabbing actor that it’s naturally expected that he will make the most of his role (this is the same reason why Steven Spielberg cut Harrison Ford’s lone scene out of E.T. because he rightfully felt Ford’s star-power and charisma would be too distracting). Ford isn’t distracting here, although you surely wish he would be because he could add so much more than the performance he turns in here. It’s almost like he’s intent on doing his best Lemmy from Motorhead impression as he sits in his saddle and growls his lines.
Daniel Craig is far stronger in his lead role despite the fact that he is a relatively blank slate as a character – literally so, since he wakes up in the desert with no memories. Craig has perfected the “speaking softly action star” role over films like Layer Cake and the James Bond movies, and he’s just as convincing as an amnesiac cowboy. Similarly, Olivia Wilde is far more impressive than expected as the mysterious Ella Swenson. Unlike Megan Fox and Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, Olivia Wilde has shown signs that she’s not only beautiful but has a more than passable amount of acting talent to effectively push the story along and shed light on the mystery at hand. Less savory is the typical post-Dances With Wolves portrayal of the Native Americans as having the ability to do just about anything with their ritualistic ways, especially since the film’s climatic battle scene rips off Return of the Jedi by using the primitive-weapon wielding Native Americans in basically the Ewok role during the battle on Endor. Yes, the noble Native American is a positive stereotype, but (like the Spike Lee named “magicial negro) it’s still a one-dimensional stereotype that lacks any sort of legitimate depth, and that’s just as insulting.
The strengths of Cowboys & Aliens outweigh the film’s weaknesses, so it’s worth checking out and you’ll enjoy it. Thankfully it’s not being screened in 3D, since I can’t imagine what (if anything) the effect of 3D could add to the movie. Nonetheless, you’ll be aware that you’re not seeing this summer’s best blockbuster nor Favreau’s best action film. Unfortunately it won’t lead to a renaissance for Westerns, but because of the talent involved it might just catch the interest of the comic book/sci-fi crowd enough to get them into other genres a shot, like traditional Westerns. Unless the Harry Potter/Captain America duel continues at the box office this weekend, that seems like a potential thankful outcome.
Rating: 6.5/10 And be sure to Netflix some classic Westerns afterwards.