There’s something about this summer that has produced a lot of “meh,” essentially movies that are good, but not nearly the top of the heap. Highly anticipated films Bad Teacher, Green Lantern, and Cars 2 have been on fans list and just didn’t hit the highs they were supposed to. The latest to enter the “just okay” pile is director Jon Faverau’s Cowboys and Aliens. Based on a comic book, directed by the man who helmed Iron Man 1 and 2, starring James Bond and Harrison Ford should sail right? It would…had it relied on just the cowboys. The aliens end up being the weak link and end up causing the movie to limp into home.
In the small town of Absolution, stranger Jake Lonergan (Daniel Craig) wanders in with no memory of whom he is or where he comes from. When a slew of alien ships come in and start kidnapping Absolution’s citizens it’s up to Jake and a posse led by Woodrow Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford) to stop them. Their only lead is a mysterious woman (Olivia Wilde) who has suffered at the hands of the aliens before.
This movie is split into two distinct halves: the Western and the science fiction. When it’s focused on the western, the story of the lone gunslinger with no memory of who he is coming up against a corrupt town, the film excels. Director Faverau has a loving reverence for the Western genre and borrows from the greats, notably John Ford and his film The Searchers. The script, written by a slew of writers including Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci, is witty and tight moving rapidly to the gang rounding up and going on the search for the aliens and their kin. At times the film is almost a PG-13 version of Deadwood, complete with Keith Carradine as Sheriff John Taggart.
Unfortunately, the aliens are where this film finds its biggest faults. The alien invasion never feels like more than a gimmick. They’re kept to the shadows expertly throughout the first half, but once the group enters the desert they’re revealed as some odd combination of a frog mixed with the alien from Aliens. It’s also revealed they have no special powers, aside from rapidly chomping on people, and are easily killed by spears and guns so there’s never a fear the cowboys won’t succeed. It would have been more intriguing for them to be indestructible or at least bring something cooler to the table then big-ass spaceships.
The actors all bring their A-game for the most part, and it’s really no surprise considering our two leads are James Bond and Indiana Jones for crying out loud. Craig never seems to deliver a bad performance and here he combines his silent Bond persona with the endurance and mystery of a classic Western hero. The opening scene involves him taking on three men and culminating with a running leap over a horse that seemed nothing short of exhausting. Craig makes everything look effortless even when he’s covered in dirt and blood. In the quieter character scenes and montages of his past, you learn that he isn’t the hero he thinks. The introspection and sadness Jake experiences in learning he’s a pretty tough character shows a slew of internal conflict.
All things considered this is Ford’s film and he gives one of his best performances in a long time. His character, Dolarhyde, is pretty awful and he takes what could have been a typical villain and imbues it with complexity and humanity. Dolarhyde is a man who has no interest in his son, played with plenty of smarm by Paul Dano, yet it all stems from his disappointment with him. There’s a touching story arc involving Dolarhyde’s relationship with his Native American ward Nat (Adam Beach) that is the heart of the film. Ford plays his character as a father who yearns for a second chance, yet shies away from it for fear of disappointment. Ford has never come off more heart-felt and multifaceted as he does here. When he’s on-screen you ignore everything that’s going on.
The only weak link in the group is Olivia Wilde as the mysterious Ella. She’s essentially a foil to Jake’s character, a mysterious lone woman with a shady past that holds the answers to everything. Her character gets a pretty ridiculous twist towards the end that feels like a means of keeping her around (and getting her nude). I understand why men find her attractive and all, but having seen this and her turn in Tron: Legacy, she’s completely wooden and stiff. Her main functions in this film are opening her eyes wide and whispering her dialogue. She’s essentially a more flexible Megan Fox but with just the same amount of acting ability. Her forced relationship with Craig just feels like combining two hot people in the same space.
The last stand between the aliens and the cowboys is sufficiently bloody but not nearly the climax it builds up to be. The cowboys amass a pretty significant army comprised of Native Americans and outlaws, but the climax is a bunch of cowboys chasing aliens and vice versa. There’s no flying ships, big explosions, or even mass deaths. It just felt like Faverau spent so much time setting up everything he forgot where to take it all.
Cowboys and Aliens is another in a long line of films that never truly give 110%. It’s a solid western and, had Faverau stuck to it, it could have been a wonderful and entertaining summer film. Instead it’s a clunky western/sci-fi hybrid that doesn’t build to anything spectacular. It can wait till DVD if you’re on the fence.
Author: Kristen Lopez, Editor in Chief
Kristen Lopez is the editor-in-chief of CC2K and a freelance pop culture essayist. Her work has appeared on Roger Ebert, The Hollywood Reporter, and The Daily Beast. When she’s not burning down Film Twitter she runs two podcasts, the female-centric film show Citizen Dame, and the classic film-themed Ticklish Business.