Movie Review: “Cowboys and Aliens”

Written by Josh Litman August 07, 2011

I admit, I wasn’t expecting Cowboys and Aliens to be all that great. The reviews I had hitherto read were mostly mixed, and the 40 something on Rotten Tomatoes didn’t help. Surprisingly enough, the opening scene of the movie was rather well executed, so of course I kept thinking, “It has to go downhill from here.” Thus, I waited. And waited. And waited. And while I waited, I enjoyed a pretty damn good movie.

Then I reached the ending. “Okay, this must be where it all goes bad,” I thought. But nope, ’twas a perfectly enjoyable ending. Just like the rest of the movie.

Now I’m not saying this movie is the best thing I’ve seen since District 9 (and perhaps my low expectations helped elevate it a bit), but a few nagging issues aside, this is a genuinely entertaining flick.

The plot opens with a man (Daniel Craig) waking up in the desert to discover a strange-looking metallic bracelet on his arm and no recollection of who he is or what came before (that’s right, amnesia). The narrative soon expands to encompass a bunch of townsfolk raided by aliens who quest to save their loved ones before it’s too late. Yep.

Cowboys and Aliens was directed by Jon Favreau — you know, the dude who directed Iron Man and made it GOOD (okay, Robert Downey Jr. gets a little credit for that, too). I’ll say it now: this film is no Iron Man. However, it’s no misstep for Favreau either. If anything, let’s call it a worthwhile experiment.

One aspect that contributes to Cowboys and Aliens‘ success as a genre mash-up are the strong performances; namely, from Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford. I’m going to dub these two the Power Duo because they’re freaking awesome. I don’t know why nobody thought of teaming these guys up before. James Bond and Han Solo/Indiana Jones kicking ass in the same movie?? Against aliens?? With an old west backdrop? SIGN ME UP.

The issues. Okay, Olivia Wilde certainly has this, shall we say, otherwordly attractiveness to her. I get that. But there’s a plot point in this film involving her that is just a bit too ridiculous of a pill to swallow. And yes, I’m saying that despite being fully aware this is a movie where cowboys fight aliens. However (and I hate that I’m actually typing these words), sometimes an obviouslyway-too-attractive woman onscreen can detract from the believability of proceedings and hurt the film overall. The formula goes like this: if you’re acting in a film and you’re super hot, your acting ability has to beat your attractiveness like paper trumps rock in rock-paper-scissors. This is a rule. And I love you Olivia Wilde, but your body is hotter than your acting (even though your acting’s not half bad).

Also, some things in this mash-up mesh better than others. The tone of the film is a bit shifty at times; notably, the movie doesn’t seem to know whether it wants to be entirely serious or not. At least the characters have a better idea: this alien business is no laughing matter to them.

Speaking of the alien business, the filmmakers sorta-kinda pulled it off. On paper, it all seems to be there. Sci-fi weaponry, large badass-looking aliens (extra appendages and all), exotic spaceship, a hankering for gold, a…wait, what? A hankering for gold? That’s right, the aliens — way too coincidentally — have a lust for gold. Why? Well, just because, okay?? It works out nicely for the story, doesn’t it?

Just like the fact the aliens don’t see too well in the daylight. Ain’t that just the perfect weakness for drawing them out on horseback and stabbing them with spears? The story seems to be packaged a little too neatly, in my opinion. It doesn’t quite feel organic. The aliens seem too obviously designed for the occasion. And the moment our protagonists finally confront them in battle, the results feel telegraphed from the start. Now, this doesn’t necessarily detract from the fun, mind you. But it does remove a crucial sense of urgency and immersion.

It really makes a difference what kind of expectations you have going into this film. I appreciated the scale of the film as it was intended, even if a title like Cowboys and Aliens suggests something more grand. The Power Duo of Craig and Ford works great, and the effects are more than sufficient to keep your eyes glittering gold. There’s even a bit of heart to round out the picture. If you can weather the bouquet of tonal shifts, the neatly packaged narrative, and Olivia Wilde being too hot for her own good (something tells me you can), then sit back and enjoy this inspired mash-up. After all, it just might be better than you expected.

My Rating: 7.5/10

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About Josh Litman

Josh Litman

Director/producer/writer/actor/editor/cinematographer/musician/neuroscientist… Josh prides himself on being simultaneously awesome and modest. In addition to We Eat Films, Josh also produces his own work (films, writing) under the banner of Action Potential Productions and has his own website, too, where his handiwork can be viewed: www.actionpp.com -- or www.joshlitman.com (if you prefer).

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