Jul 30 2011 1:01pm

Sometimes All You Have is a Great Title: Cowboys & Aliens

Cowboys & Aliens movie review

I try not to make reviews about me, because while the observer has quite a bit to do with the observation, the observed is the part other people care about, but I need to share something before continuing on with the discussion of Cowboys & Aliens. I’ve produced and directed several plays and a couple films, nothing on the scale of Cowboys & Aliens, obviously, but the creative process is fractally the same in most important ways, no matter how much or how little money’s involved. Sometimes you start out with The Greatest Idea In The World — or, in the case under discussion, an absolutely terrific title — and for whatever reason, factors beyond one’s control, poor or incomplete planning, any of a thousand little things can derail your project and leave you as the creator and your audience wondering what went wrong.

Such is the case, sadly, with Cowboys & Aliens.

Mild plot structure spoilers ahead.

Put on the spot, I would identify the title as the movie’s biggest problem. It’s so great that it’s hard for any movie to match the one the audience had in mind after hearing the title and seeing those frenetically edited, inscrutable trailers for months. In a lot of ways, what the audience (unless it’s just me) brings to Cowboys & Aliens is the stuff that gets in the way. Like, if this movie cost $10 million or less and the aliens were just a bunch of guys in rubber suits like Hannibal on The A-Team and there weren’t two of the coolest movie stars of all time headlining it, it’d be an affable, sloppy, kind of dumb (but not in a bad way) good time. As it is, though, Cowboys & Aliens cost $160 million, the aliens are expensively and digitally rendered and look worse than Hannibal used to (non-A-Team fans, be advised: that’s not good), it stars Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford, and all of these factors cause the sloppiness and dumbness to be, rather than affable and good-natured, frankly kind of sad.

This isn’t to say that Cowboys & Aliens doesn’t have its good qualities. Daniel Craig is pure movie star; no matter how dumb the movie around him gets (which is plenty, and not in a good way), he’s a rock. And for the straight ladies and gay gentlemen in the crowd, he rides a horse with style and has shirtless scenes, so there’s that. Harrison Ford is so effortlessly charismatic that when he tries — which he certainly does in this, I haven’t seen him this awake in almost twenty years — he reminds you why he’s Harrison Ford. And this is, shockingly, the first western he’s ever done (that anyone’s ever seen, unless The Frisco Kid has some big cult audience I’m not aware of). Sure, Indiana Jones rode a horse, but it’s not a western.

Oddly, despite all the aliens running around in UFOs blowing stuff up and being all technologically advanced and all that hoo haw, Cowboys & Aliens is a bona fide western. A stranger (Daniel Craig) comes to town. There’s a country preacher, a tenderfoot doctor, a rich guy (Harrison Ford) who might be kind of bad, a mysterious woman (Olivia Wilde, about whom more in a second), outlaws, Injuns (and quite stereotypical ones at that), a climax that involves heading them off at the pass and dusting off some Mexican-American and Civil War military tactics, and a whole bunch of stolen gold. And, being a bona fide western, it’s not a spoiler to reveal that the hero rides off into the sunset (kind of, it’s mid-afternoon — but the horizon anyway) at the end.

There are — obviously, considering the very presence of the word “aliens” in the title — some variations on the standard western format and tropes, the best of which is Olivia Wilde’s character. For the early parts of the movie, she’s given little to do but stand around looking exotic while wearing a gun, while some poorly groomed provincial or other says something sexist to or about her every five minutes. Then, in a scene that was spoiled by the trailer, it’s revealed that there’s a bit more to her than we’d had any previous reason to suspect, and she immediately becomes the most interesting character in the movie. Daniel Craig’s intense magnetism and Harrison Ford’s Harrison Fordness aside, seriously, if this movie had been told entirely from Olivia Wilde’s perspective, it’d have been a much better (and more overtly SF) movie than it ends up being. She’s terrific in the role (such as it is), too, every bit the match for Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford in the charisma department.

Sadly, the movie’s upside ends there. Jon Favreau is a skilled director who knows a great deal about cinematic technique, which he uses quite well... sometimes. As in the Iron Man movies, the action frankly sucks (technical term) and the further we get into the part of the movie where action predominates, Favreau’s confidence gets wobbly, and with it the camera. The suspenseful part of the action sequences is less whether the good guys are going to make it out intact than in the desperate, urgent wish to see a well-framed shot again. (That was mean... sorry, sir).

Rickety as Favreau’s action skills are, though, the script is the real culprit. There’s a probability formula in Hollywood that dictates that, past the second credited writer, with each additional credited writer, the likelihood of that script being good or even coherent diminishes exponentially. Cowboys & Aliens has six. Another (less clearly defined; the subjectivity gets messy) variable in that equation that’s a red danger sign is if a lot of those writers are people you’ve heard of. I’d heard of all six. That means a lot of money was spent on the script, which means someone was nervous, which... well, you get the idea. The thing is, if six writers did enough to get credit, dozens of others had to have had a hand in it at some point or other, and that many cooks stirring this kind of pot leads to messy storytelling.

The story is rock solid for about the first twenty minutes. There are some crisply-directed scenes (the opener, in particular, is a great example of efficient visual exposition and deliberate cutting) setting everything up, but it all goes to pieces the second the aliens show up. The movie gets torn in several directions (a metaphor, interestingly, personified in Harrison Ford’s first scene, where he’s draw-and-halving some guy between two horses to get him to talk) between playing it straight, which was a smart choice, and playing it ridiculous, which unfortunately the title plays right into.

The climax is a particular disaster of logic, as the movie finds itself painted into the corner of how the cowboys (and Indians, who have by this point joined the fight) manage to fight off the aliens without magic. Rather than explain, the movie just has people run into exactly the right random spot at exactly the right time, instantaneously learn how to work alien technology even though their only frame of reference is to refer to the aliens as “demons,” and generally run around so fast it’s like Favreau’s sitting behind the camera chewing his fingernails going “just speed everything up so no one notices nothing makes any sense.”

Despite all of this, though, Cowboys & Aliens is not a movie that I can bring myself to hate. I found it very frustrating, more for what it could have been than what it was. Really, instead of blaming Favreau or the writers (the cast is great) or the FX team, I blame myself. I think I’d built this up to be Steve McQueen and John Wayne Fight The Martians, and since that movie can never exist, it’s on me for expecting this to be that. Oh, well. There is one silver lining, though: if we want a story about cowboys fighting aliens, Howard Waldrop’s short story “Night of the Cooters” will always be there to fill the void. That story is awesome (Slim Pickens Fights The Martians is just as good as McQueen/Wayne), and in fact, I’m going to go read it right now and cheer up. 

Danny Bowes is a playwright, filmmaker and blogger. He is also a contributor to and

Lisa R
1. Lisa R
Not knowing much -- if anything -- about cinematography, I didn't have the problems you did (except for that one scene where Daniel Craig is escaping the aliens in flashback). I also wasn't expecting Steve McQueen & John Wayne Fight the Martians. Perhaps my expectations were lower. Regardless, I thoroughly enjoyed the film. I liked how it was more western and less sci-fi, and that the writers decided not to info-dump while explaining about The Aliens.

The one thing that had me grumbling: Olivia Wilde's costuming. Her hair is loose and she's not wearing a petticoat? At first I thought she was supposed to be a whore, but then it became clear she was just ill-prepared for disguise.
Lisa R
2. Kadere
LOVED this movie! Thought it was a LOT of fun. Harrison Ford and Daniel Craig were both terrific and everything I wanted and imagined. Ford did some great character work and really brought a certain amount of depth to his character. The story didn't drive home the idea of uniting against a common enemy to death, but let it exist organically in the film. The aliens looked creepy if a little too much like the aliens from Super 8 and Cloverfield. Lots of good mystery, lots of great laughs. If you just go with the film, and accept that Oliva's an alien from another planet that these aliens destroyed, and just go with the idea of drugs bringing back memories, and just go aliens looking for gold, the film is fantastic. I expect it'll gain cult status over the years. I think this is the best movie Ford's done in a long time, and yeah, I thought it was great.
Ashe Armstrong
3. AsheSaoirse
I'd been waiting for this and all my expectations were based on the trailer and the comic. The comic being average (I partially blame the art) and the trailer's doing a good job at hyping the main event. It delivered for me. As a Weird Western film, it washed away the stain of Jonah Hex and got the taste out too (note: I only managed to watch the first 10 minutes of Jonah Hex before screaming at the TV and turning it off). Were there some unanswered questions in the plot? Yes. Were some of the action scenes a bit shaky? Yes. There was plenty to make up for it though and as a huge fan of the weird western, I think this is a fantastic step in the right direction towards getting an amazing weird western film.
Lisa R
4. Wizard Clip
Hey, Kadere, how about a spoiler alert?
Regarding story problems, I recall the same issues being brought up with the comic when it came out a few years ago: very little development or internal logic, just pure high concept designed to sell it to Hollywood.

As for Harrison Ford and Westerns, he was in at least one episode of Gunsmoke, pre-Star Wars.
Ron Griggs
5. RonGriggs
Best part of the movie (spoiler alert) is Clancy Brown's character dying after been attacked by the aliens, but giving a good stiff-upper-lip pep talk to his comrades first. Of course, he did almost this same scene 27 years as Rawhide in The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension. Wonderful!
Lisa R
6. Hettingr
I'm a stickler for NOT watching trailers and previews of anything I would like to enjoy. We just saw C&A, and it was a thoroughly entertaining flick, with lots of surprises and characters you can care about, if you want to.

If you watch trailers, then you've got a problem. The movie seems like a predictable string of disjointed scenes pasted together. Beats me why the movie industry shoves them in our face. Like shooting yourself in the foot, if you ask me.
Lisa R
7. Zezebelle
Is Olivia the only woman in the film? That's what it looks like in the trailer. Very bad form in 2011, if so.
Lisa R
8. ***Dave
The acting, all around, is solid, and I thought the FX (incuding the aliens) were well done, and there are a lot of ideas and scenes that, in and of themselves, are pretty darned keen.

But taken as a whole, the movie is a slow-motion train wreck, with way too many protagonists with their own story lines (the loner, the cattle baron, the vengeful last survivor, the kid, the saloon-keeping doc). Worse, the aliens act incoherently, in eleventy different ways, until it becomes crystal clear that they are simply random plot forces to push against our heroes, not reasonable antagonists.

I don't regret seeing the movie at all, but I've no desire to see it again. Which is a shame, because, as noted, this could have been (between title, and concept, and talent involved) freaking awesome.
Emily Asher-Perrin
9. EmilyAP
This is all exactly correct.

That said, I ended up liking the movie because I had incredibly low expectations. (I think the trailers might have done it.) But the script was pretty darn bad. And I really spent most of the film wishing they had gone at it from an Alien standpoint and only shown bits and pieces of them instead of huge CGI monsters. They weren't scary. Sigh.

Olivia Wilde's character was definitely the high point aside from Harrison Ford and Daniel Craig being generally awesome.
Theresa DeLucci
10. theresa_delucci
I thought Adam Beach was the unsung standout of the cast, to be honest. I love him.

Also solid was Keith Carradine, who I've only recently come to love since his turns in Deadwood and Dexter. Clancy Brown, I've loved for a long time. Kind of can't believe how jarring it was to see him in this, then watch Highlander a week later. Wow! That was long ago. But he'll always be Brother Justin from Carnivale for me.

It was a good movie, but I think my expectations were a little high. I was so stoked for this movie. It's Red Dead Redemption with alien DLC! But, truth be told, Red Dead Redemption had more heart and the main character was a bunch of pixels. Craig was just a little too stoic for me here. And Rockwell's character was funny but his arc was way predictable. But overall, it was a fun diversion. Maybe I had a hard time concentrating because I went to the premiere and the whole cast of It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia and Seth Green were sitting in front of me. It was a weird night.
Danny Bowes
11. DannyBowes
@theresa_delucci If this had been Red Dead Redemption with alien DLC this whole review would have been about how it was better than Citizen Kane.
Danny Bowes
11. DannyBowes
@theresa_delucci If this had been Red Dead Redemption with alien DLC this whole review would have been about how it was better than Citizen Kane.
Pamela Adams
12. PamAdams
I enjoyed the film- of course, I took the precaution of seeing a low-priced matinee, and bringing an extra pack of Red Vines. Yes, could of been better, but it was an enjoyable enough way of spending a hot Friday afternoon.

I loved that the dog didn't die, and also Daniel Craig's true cowboy moments where he made sure his hat was on straight before shooting the aliens.

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