Cowboys & Aliens review

Posted by David On August 26, 2011 ADD COMMENTS

Cowboys & Aliens

Released: 2011

Director: Jon Favreau

Writers: Scott Mitchell Rosenberg (story), Roberto Orci & Alex Kurtzman (screenplay) and 6 others!

Starring: Daniel Craig, Harrison Ford, Olivia Wilde

What you need to know

Cowboys & Aliens started life as a concept script at Universal Picture/Dreamworks. When nothing came of it Rosenberg published it as a comic and paid vendors to stock it in order to make it appear more successful than it was and therefore a more lucrative prospect for the film studios. It was a gamble that paid off, with Universal Picture/Dreamworks again teaming up to produce the film. The final product however, is substantially different from the graphic novel version (which is good because the comic story was terrible).

A wounded man awakens in the New Mexico desert, with a strange device on his wrist that he can’t remove. After a brief altercation with some locals, the sheriff recognises him as outlaw Jake Lonergan and arrests him, with the assistance of a mysterious young woman, Ella, who previously expressed a lot of interest in Jake’s wristband and apparent amnesia.

He is eventually freed during an alien attack on the town and is caught up in a posse of townsfolk determined to track their missing kin. Along the way a little more is learnt of Jake’s past, he is violently re-united with his former gang and he survives yet another alien attack. Ella however is mortally wounded and dies, but later resurrects herself and reveals her origin.

Eventually the group join with the gang and some Indians and they all attack the aliens. The townsfolk are saved and Ella sacrifices herself to destroy the ship and the remaining aliens.

What we thought

DAVID: This film could have been so much better than it was. While it had a couple of cool moments, they weren’t cool enough to allay the boredom. To their credit the film is played straight, which works much better than playing for laughs would have done, but still not enough to entertain me.

RICHO: Crossing the sci-fi and western genres is not a new concept – movies from Serenity to Back to the Future III to Westworld have attempted it with varying degrees of success. The most compelling of these movies take the core elements of both genres and use them to make something new and interesting, a synthesis of the two that can create not only a fascinating new reality but opens up intriguing story ideas as well. Unfortunately, Cowboys and Aliens fails to deliver on anything but the most superficial level – it simply transposes the aliens to a western setting, failing to capture anything interesting from either genre. Really, the movie could have been set anywhere, and the use of cowboys is clearly just a cheap gimmick.

To be fair, the movie is exactly what its title purports it to be – there are cowboys, and there are aliens. Unfortunately, neither is interesting enough to hold the audience’s attention.

DAVID: There were also a couple of things that really annoyed me, like the character names Lonergan (Lone Gun), Dolarhyde (Dollar Hide), the wealthy cattle baron. About as subtle as a smack in the face.

RICHO: There’s absolutely nothing subtle about this movie at all. It broadcasts all of its major plot twists well in advance of when they’re actually revealed. The storytelling is very much by the numbers, conveniently hitting each story beat without ever trying anything different or creative.

DAVID: Also, how stupid was the scientist alien to leave his power band thing open and begging to be taken? After it takes it off it uses its secondary hands to operate the laser scalpel anyway, so why remove it in the first place? Lazy writing at its most obvious.

RICHO: There’s a lot of lazy writing in Cowboys and Aliens. Take Olivia Wilde’s character Ella. She knows what’s going on and she needs Craig’s help in combating the aliens. She meets him, finds out he’s suffering from amnesia, then decides not to tell him what’s happening. Later on, when she’s reborn from the ashes, she decides it’s time to tell him everything. Why? Why not let him know right from the outset what he’s facing? Clearly, this is done to create some sense of mystery behind what’s happening, but there’s no reasonable in-story logic behind it. Textbook lazy writing.

Unfortunately, it’s hard to determine who’s to blame. There are 8 writers listed in the credits, which might explain why the script is such a mess and the characterisation is all over the place.

DAVID: And, the strengths and weaknesses of the aliens were inconsistent. They become noticeably weaker towards the end, as it became incredibly obvious that the humans don’t stand a chance. One is shown shrugging off close range pistol fire while another is taken out by being stabbed with a large stick and a few bullets. Make up your mind creators.

RICHO: Unfortunately, the aliens are the weakest element in the movie. As antagonists, they have no personality or characteristics that separate them from any of the dozens of alien invasion movies out there. Essentially, they’re incredibly generic and dull, much like just about everything in this movie.

DAVID: One last point – why did the wrist weapon light up when an alien was near? It was clearly an enemy proximity warning, but why would a device made by the alien detect the same aliens as an enemy?

RICHO: I suppose you could argue that it’s keyed into its wearer and warns whoever is wearing it of danger, but that might be giving the screenwriters too much credit. It’s never really implicitly stated in the movie why the control works for Craig. Obviously they wanted something that could create easy tension rather than building actual suspense, and an early warning system neatly broadcasts to the audience that its time for another big action scene. Perhaps if Craig hadn’t been warned every time danger was near I might have felt some level of trepidation or anxiety for his plight. Then again, probably not.

DAVID: It wasn’t all bad. Jake rescuing Ella was pretty cool and the acting was generally good, with Craig and Ford as standouts, but only barely. I’m struggling to find other nice things to say to be honest.

RICHO: Harrison Ford does the best with what little he’s given to work with and manages to provide the standout performance in the movie. His character, at least, has a clearly defined story arc and he runs with it as best he can.

Daniel Craig does what he does best; looking stoic and intimidating. Unfortunately, Lonergan isn’t much of a protagonist. He has almost no personality and there’s no real reason to feel any sympathy or connection to him. Even when his back story is revealed, it’s so uninspired and cliché that I was left cold.

The supporting cast does their best, and there are moments of excellence. Clancy Brown as the preacher Meachum and Keith Carradine as the sheriff stand out from the pack in a few key moments, and Sam Rockwell as Doc holds his own in an unusually restrained performance. It’s a shame that such a quality cast didn’t get better material to work with.

DAVID: The SFX was very ordinary. The aliens looked awful when in motion, barely video game worthy, and weren’t very interesting when we finally got a good look either. However, Jake’s wrist weapon was cool and the cinematography was quite good, with an almost classic feel to it.

RICHO: There are certain shots and scenes in the film that harken back to the Sergio Leone spaghetti westerns of the 60’s and the classic John Ford movies of the 50’s. Unfortunately, most of these shots come across more as cheap mimicry, copying the shots of superior filmmakers rather than invoking the spirit of those earlier movies while creating something new and original. Favreau and cinematographer Matthew Libatique create nothing more than a pastiche of older westerns rather than paying homage to the directors of the past.

DAVID: Cowboys & Aliens isn’t terrible but it isn’t good either, and I am tired of these so called ‘summer blockbusters’ that hype themselves up as entertainment pumped to 11, but leave you feeling like you’ve wasted 2 hours of your life. I give this – 2 Lukes.

RICHO: Cowboys fails to achieve the goals of the summer blockbuster it purports to be – it is dull, lifeless, and completely fails to entertain – 1 Luke.

What do you think?

Have you seen Cowboy & Aliens? Do you agree or disagree with our opinions?

An entertaining mix-up of genres, or a bad idea from the start?

Let us know! Send in your thoughts to, or leave a comment on this post. We would love to hear from you!

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