Talk about a movie being as advertised. Rarely has a movie been so thoroughly encapsulated by the title than ‘Cowboys & Aliens.’
Jake Lonergan (Daniel Craig) is a wanted outlaw. The trouble is, he doesn’t know it. He awakens in the desert without his memory and a strange metal contraption attached to his wrist. Jake saunters into a nearby town called Absolution. The local preacher, Meachum (Clancy Brown) tends to his minor wounds. This tiny town is constantly threatened by Percy Dolarhyde (Paul Dano), the son of Colonel Woodrow Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford), a wealthy cattleman whose financial resources keep the community afloat. Jake puts Percy in his place, but is recognized by Sheriff Taggart (Keith Carradine) and they are both arrested thanks to the help of a young woman named Ella Swenson (Olivia Wilde).
Before Woodrow can negotiate the release of Percy, alien spaceships begin blowing up the town. After much death, destruction and general mayhem, Jake figures out how to use his wrist contraption and uses it to shoot down one of the ships, driving the others off.
A posse is rounded up of all of the major players from town to follow and destroy the aliens. First, Jake rides off to a cabin where he remembers being abducted by aliens with his ladyfriend and some gold they had acquired. Details are hazy, though. With a few clues, he returns to the group and they continue on their way to take out these invaders.
There are a few minor scuffles and reunions along the way, but it all culminates in a big confrontation. You could see that coming though, right?
If you get down to it, there aren’t that many major action sequences in this film. The story is extremely front-loaded with exposition which makes some sense, but it all just seems like a huge build-up for very little. When it comes to Emmett Taggart (Noah Ringer) as the sheriff’s grandson, everything happens with him that you think you would happen with the scrappy young character who probably shouldn’t be there in the first place. He finds himself in danger a few times, is taken under the wing of the hardest man in the bunch (Dolarhyde), and feebly helps in a token way at the end. You get the drift. Pure formula baby.
It’s no surprise considering that all too often, the more expensive a movie, the fewer chances that are taken plot-wise. Westerns are tough sells these days and combining the genre with science fiction is done unceremoniously here. The title should be the hint about the nuanced storytelling. Also lame-brained, the aliens want…gold? Really? Rival aliens would only send one one scout to try to counteract an entire invasion? For a lot of this, you have to just go with it.
Some of this bluntness can be explained by the graphic novel origins. That obviously found an audience and connected with people, so the thinking it will translate to the big screen is increasingly common. When you spend over $150 million dollars making the film and your box office only mildly exceeds that, it ends up looking like a relative financial failure. It’s kind of hard to see what all of that money went toward, though. Some budgetary restraint would have been better for the bottom line.
The whole thing felt like it is longer than it really was, likely because it seemed stuffed with superfluous scenes and wasteful exchanges. The only reason Jake reconnects with his old gang is to provide nameless/faceless fodder for the alien fight sequence at the end. These visitors do have to kill some people, after all. On the bright side, director John Favreau actually ends this movie in a way that is more satisfying than his ‘Iron Man’ movies which were slightly anti-climactic.
The acting is alright. It’s about what you would expect from a big summer blockbuster. Craig pulls off the rugged cowboy bit quite well while Harrison Ford’s Colonel starts off delightfully unpleasant, only to warm up as the film progresses. He seemed much more appropriate in this role than as Indiana Jones, at his age. Most everyone plays the stereotypical roles that you would anticipate in a western though Sam Rockwell is good comic relief.
Special features include: finding the story, a look at the alien design, a look at the set and feature commentary.
While keeping these many criticisms in mind, ‘Cowboys & Aliens’ is a decently entertaining movie to have on in the background while you and your friends have a party. Most big budget action films are easy targets for criticism but that doesn’t mean a lot of them aren’t watchable. If the promise of seeing aliens transplanted into the old west gets you excited, then saddle up. Sometimes it’s okay to just turn off your brain and stare at the screen with a glazed over look in your eyes as the images dance in front of you. Still, it probably could have been better.
Rated PG-13 118 minutes 2011
‘Cowboys & Aliens’ will be available to rent/purchase in Allentown, the Lehigh Valley and beyond on December 6th.