Monday, 22 August 2011

Cowboys & Aliens – reviewed by Douglas J. Ogurek

When I first saw a poster advertising Cowboys & Aliens, I anticipated a film that, in the vein of Grease 2 (1982) or Ghost Rider (2007), points fun at its own ridiculousness. I looked forward to dialogue and characterization as preposterous as the film’s concept. However, the western/sci-fi crossover, inspired by a 2006 graphic novel created by Scott Mitchell Rosenberg and written by Fred Van Lente and Andrew Foley, did not give me what I anticipated. What I did get was something much better: an engaging film that convincingly mixes the atmosphere of the spaghetti western with the intensity of Independence Day.

A mangy-looking man (Daniel Craig) awakens in a setting typical of the early American Southwest. A strange metallic device is stuck on his wrist, and he remembers nothing. He makes his way to the dusty streets of Absolution, where locals recognize him as the outlaw Jake Lonergan, wanted for theft and murder. But there is something more threatening to the town (and to all of mankind) than Jake Lonergan.

The huge piece of bling-bling clamped onto Lonergan turns out to be a weapon capable of taking down human-snatching aliens. Lonergan’s memories begin to return, and the links between the aliens and a mysterious woman grow clearer.

More than once, director Jon Favreau (Iron Man, Iron Man 2) gives the aliens a delightfully flamboyant entrance: Just when the action of the conventional western peaks, the aliens invade the scene in their insect-like jets!

Despite this being a big-budget action film targeted toward the inattentive modern day viewer, Favreau lovingly portrays some of the finer details: the gulping of whiskey, a thumb testing the sharpness of a blade, the crunching on an apple, the wood of an imperfect fence. These details, coupled with some beautiful vistas of New Mexico, help establish authenticity and plunge the viewer deeper into the fictional dream.

Daniel Craig sheds his Bondian sophistication (and his British accent) to portray Lonergan, the gritty outsider reminiscent of Stephen King’s gunslinger Roland Deschain or the typical Clint Eastwood western protagonist. Craig’s chiseled good looks, ectomorphic frame, and stripped down dialogue complement his stoic character, and his saunter would give John Wayne a run for his money.

As Colonel Woodrow Dolarhyde – don’t you just love the names? – Harrison Ford plays a money-hungry rancher whose power the people of Absolution fear, yet whose true character isn’t nearly as rough as his exterior. Dolarhyde’s attempts to mask his compassion in sarcasm and overt masculinity add humor. Be sure to look for one of Ford’s trademark half-grins.

Those who appreciate strong acting get a healthy dose of it in the beginning of the film. Paul Dano (There Will Be Blood) offers a nuanced and humorous sideshow as Percy, the ne’er-do-well son of Dolarhyde. However, Favreau chose just the right amount of screen time for Percy, who would have grown annoying. Percy’s absence for the majority of the film proves an eccentric character does not a sci-fi/western make. No insult to Dano intended.

Some reviews chastised this film as uninspired or stale. Perhaps they missed the film’s title, and the overall concept. Hey, this is Cowboys… and Aliens! The challenge was not to come up with an original western, nor was it to come up with unique aliens. The challenge was to effectively bridge two very familiar genres, and in this Cowboys & Aliens succeeds masterfully.

Cowboys & Aliens, directed by Jon Favreau. Universal, 118 mins.


  1. I saw this movie last Saturday and couldn’t have been more disappointed - spoilers below!
    As a modern day take on a western, the film from the onset looked plausible. All the staples we’re used to seeing in recent years are present – the dirt and grime of the character’s faces and clothes, the setting (no new ground broken here for cinematography) and the score replete with a jangly guitar above grand strings.
    It’s when Craig’s emotionless take on his character strides his way through the scenes blank – faced, we’re presented with pretty much what to expect for the remainder of the movie.
    Ford’s hard frown erodes as the movie moves on, but that’s all that really can be said about his performance. There’s a great scene with a boy where Ford gives him his knife, telling the lad (paraphrasing) he had used it to cut his father’s throat to end his misery – and we just know this is an important scene to develop the boy’s character, and add background to Ford’s. Unfortunately, this scene served to only serve the latter.
    The film has some real big problems – and below are more spoilers so beware!
    1. We’re told by a woman (a shape shifting Alien) the Aliens have come to Earth to mine Gold, as, ‘It’s as rare out there as it is here.’ Now, taking her literally and considering the size of ‘out there’ (or rather the fact we cannot measure it) there must be a huge amount of Gold elsewhere in the universe It’s never explained why the Aliens need the gold – intergalactic jewellers perhaps.
    2. Once again the aliens are insect / reptile hybrids by design. They’re very fast, strong and make that characteristic ‘alien’ screech / scream all aliens seem to nowadays. And why do all aliens nowadays have to be nudists? Is it because the lead animator just doesn’t want to animate a material other than that of the alien’s armour and skin?
    3. We’re told by our shape shifting alien woman the aliens are kidnapping the hapless townsfolk to ‘study their weaknesses.’ Do what? It’s 1880s America. They have a handful of firearms such as the navy colt, peacemaker and the Winchester repeater, along with dynamite and the ability to fire cannon balls, but that’s about it. The native Americans have….I need not go on. The aliens have energy weapons, bad attitudes and can bring down horses with a casual wave of their arms. What are they missing?
    4. Our shape shifting alien woman explains that the aliens had done the same to her people, and she was on earth to prevent them from doing the same to us. Well she was a little late, considering – and, as a shape shifter she simply could have shifted to look like one of the aliens and blown up their ship long before they had kidnapped anyone – thus preventing the damage she wanted to prevent, and sacrificing herself just as she did so at the end of the movie anyway.
    5. Craig’s alien gizmo / macguffin. We see Craig’s arm fall upon the weapon accidentally in a flashback scene. Yet the alien’s arms are huge compared to a human’s – preventing the weapon from fitting snugly on a human’s wrist.

    More to follow...

  2. For me the entire film is a lesson on running it by the numbers.
    Aliens kidnap townsfolk’s relatives, including Ford’s character’s son = motivation for Ford’s character and townsfolk.
    Craig’s character’s lost his memory but he’s wearing an alien weapon = motivation for him to find answers about himself and his past.
    Craig and co are captured by native Americans. They burn the body of the shape shifting alien woman who had died following an attack by an alien, only for her to rise from the flames = motivation for native Americans to join Craig and co.
    Then there’s that scene with the boy and the knife. He’s trapped in a child sized gap in a rock face. The alien opens its chest to reveal two little arms with three fingers on the hands. The alien gropes around for the kid, revealing its heart between the arms. The kid thrusts out with the knife, killing the alien.
    Now, wouldn’t it have been better if the alien had plucked the kid from the gap in the rock, held him up, kicking and struggling, only for the kid to pull out the knife and slit the alien’s throat, just as Ford’s character had told him? You know, in a mirror scene kind of way?
    For me the film failed on too many important levels.
    A friend said to me following our hasty exit from the cinema, ‘It’s cowboys and aliens, what do you expect?’
    ‘My money back,’ I said.