Cowboys & Aliens (United States, 2011)

July 28, 2011
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Cowboys & Aliens Poster

Cowboys & Aliens is a mashup of a mediocre Western and a mediocre science fiction story. The resulting film is far better than the sum of its two seemingly disparate parts. Although a little overlong, the production will find favor not only with lovers of its root genres but with those just looking for a not-too-demanding good time. Although the title sounds jokey, that's where the comedic element ends. Director Jon Favreau keeps the tone light but, aside from the occasional low-key gag or one-liner, the humor is never allowed to upstage the more serious elements.

Marketing for Cowboys & Aliens may trumpet the pairing of Indiana Jones and James Bond (much as it did when Sean Connery joined Harrison Ford in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade), but neither lead actor is playing his character here the way he might in a franchise film. Ford, looking grizzled with his unshaven stubble, is not apt to remind anyone of Indy or Han Solo, especially once we learn that his alter-ego, Colonel Woodrow Dolarhyde, isn't the nicest of men. Meanwhile, Daniel Craig may go through the entire film without cracking a smile. His Jake Lonergan is not guilty of everything of which he has been accused, but he is an outlaw and he's out for revenge. Come to think of it, maybe he's not that different from Quantum of Solace's 007.

Favreau works magic interweaving the two genres, showing equal respect for both. Western conventions entwine with science fiction ones. One moment, we're looking at an image pilfered from Alien; the next, we're watching a shadow of The Searchers. The way in which extraterrestrial involvement is explained in the 19th century uses religion rather than science as its lynchpin, which is understandable. What we would call "aliens" in 2011 are regarded as "demons." Still, the reaction to Lonergan's plasma weapon (or whatever kind of "ray gun" it is) is surprisingly understated, bordering on nonchalant.

Cowboys & Aliens has a great hook. Lonergan awakens in the middle of nowhere with a bloody wound in his side, a strange bracelet on his left arm, and no memory of anything except that he can speak English. An encounter with a group of would-be bounty hunters lets us know he's a man to be reckoned with. When he arrives at the nearest town, he refuses to back down when Percy Dolarhyde (Paul Dano), the arrogant son of Colonel Dolarhyde, insults him. This sets off a chain of circumstances pitting Lonergan against Dolarhyde until the aliens arrive in explosive fashion and forge them into reluctant allies. Meanwhile, a townswoman named Ellie (Olivia Wilde) is inordinately interested in Lonergan regaining his memory, and it's apparent she knows more than she's saying about the "demons" and the "bracelet" Lonergan uses to destroy them.

The movie, which has at its roots a comic book, is backed by a number of highly respected names, including (but not limited to) Steven Spielberg (Executive Producer), Ron Howard (Producer), and Brian Grazer (Producer). Included in the gaggle of screenwriters are the men responsible for Transformers and its first sequel, but don't hold that against them - they also wrote the Star Trek re-boot. Thankfully, this is one of their better efforts, although it's difficult to say how much of the final product is theirs. Like Super 8, there's a "Spielbergian" feel to Cowboys & Aliens, although here it's less of an homage and more of a natural byproduct of the storyline and the participation of Ford.

On a technical level, Cowboys & Aliens is strong. The CGI creatures owe (like seemingly all extraterrestrials these days) a nod to H.R. Geiger, although it's not as evident when we see them in wide shots running down horses as it is in shadowy close-ups. Matthew Libatique has lensed the film as he might a Western, with careful detail paid to the awe-inspiring landscape and the town wanting to fade into black-and-white (although I didn't notice if there were any stray tumbleweeds around). Harry Gregson-Williams' score is forceful, melding John Williams and Elmer Bernstein.

Cowboys & Aliens has a strong start and an action/special effects-packed climax, but there are times in the middle when it drags - especially during scenes when Lonergan reunites with his old gang and the Cowboys and Indians are forced to merge. Several instances have surprising dramatic heft - not enough to bring a tear to the eye but enough to mark this as more than a forgettable piece of cinematic fluff. It's a solidly engaging and well produced spectacle that puts to shame some of its bigger and flashier predecessors on this long, depressing 2011 Summer Blockbuster Road. And, since it's not available in 3-D, the only way to see it is the best way to see it, and that's worth a solid recommendation.

Cowboys & Aliens (United States, 2011)

Run Time: 1:58
U.S. Release Date: 2011-07-29
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Violence, Nudity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1