- Movie Rating -

Cowboys & Aliens (2011)

| July 11, 2011 | 0 Comments

As the title suggests, Cowboys & Aliens is indeed a western mixed with science fiction, with guys in cowboy hats fighting bug-eyed monsters from outer space. Fundamentally, that’s a combination that should go together about as well as pizza and ice cream.  Yet, here is a movie that, at heart, is entertaining without really breaking new ground.

The plot is more or less spoiled by that title.  The first half hour of this movie creates an intriguing mystery and a pretty good western before the spaceships show up and ruin the party.  The story takes place in 1873, and opens with a man (Daniel Craig) waking up in the middle of the desert with a wound in his side and a strange metal bracelet attached to his left wrist.  He has no memory of how he got there or who he is.  He is literally a man with no name.

Soon we will find out his name and, by the end, we will learn all about his identity.  It would have been fun if the movie had left him as a Man With No Name, kind of like Clint Eastwood, but never mind.  Any information about the movie will give away his identity but since his name is part of the revelation about his origins, I’ll leave it for you to discover and simply address him as The Stranger.

The Stranger walks out of the desert and into the dusty desert town of Absolution, your usual Western movie town with drunks, barkeeps, gunslingers, a man called Doc and, of course, one breathtaking beauty (Olivia Wilde).  The town is ruled with an iron fist by a crusty former Colonel named Woodrow Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford) who returns into town only to find that his loud-mouthed son Percy (Paul Dano) has been arrested for firing his gun randomly in the street and scaring the townsfolk.  Earlier, Percy had a run-in with The Stranger and they are both taken into custody.

That’s about the point where alien spacecrafts from above fall from the night sky and begin firing lasers at the people below.  Some are killed and several are scooped up on long metal ropes and pulled up into the ships.  The population of Absolution is, understandably, dumbstruck.  They don’t know what has just happened (some suggest demons) but they know that some of their loved ones have been spirited away by something.

The alien attack  leads to Dolarhyde forming a posse out of the menfolk and, of course, the town beauty (who I think  is actually the only woman in town) to go and track down these thingy-ma-jigs and get their people back.  That leads to a long trek into the desert where we unravel the mystery of The Stranger and, very often, get to see lots of spaceships and bug-eyed monsters. They are not at all friendly or even slightly benevolent.  They roar, they snarl, they bite and they shoot lasers.  Their purpose for abducting humans is pretty familiar – we’re being violently studied.  Nothing new.

To be honest, I think this would have been a pretty good movie without the aliens.  The first 20 minutes of the movie show great promise as we are introduced to a western settlement that actually feels like a real place.  The people who populate Absolution are slightly more than one dimensional.  In particular is the character of the local saloon owner (Sam Rockwell) who seems to have a presence that suggests that he is more than simply a background character.  Also interesting is Meacham, a kindly soft-spoken preacher who speaks with a certain manner of wisdom that doesn’t feel cliched.  There’s even a nice presence to the town beauty, Ella Swenson.  She spends half the movie as a pretty love interest until an intriguing story development midway through make her character into something more.

Surprisingly, the character that I found the least interesting was Dolarhyde.  Ford gives a good performance but the character is written at one level: A mean old man who has a soft heart, especially in the presence of a little orphan boy.  The characters have the stature and the presence to make for a really interesting Western.  Done well, audiences will go to see a western, witness the success of last year’s True Grit.  It can be done.

Yet, I think the mood is spoiled by the aliens who aren’t all that interesting. Even with that, the third act of the movie is no surprise, with the humans and the aliens battling it out with gunfire and laser blasts. I wouldn’t have minded the presence of the sci-fi plot if the movie had really gone somewhere with it. Say, taking some of the cowboys away to their home planet. Or, how about having Sigourney Weaver join the posse as some kind of alien expert? She knows about these things, right?

The movie, on the sci-fi level, is kind of a let down after the bar has been set for this genre by the likes of Avatar and Super 8. By comparison, this one seems rather droll. The aliens just aren’t all that interesting.  Cowboys & Aliens is a competent, if not overwhelming late summer movie. There’s a lot to like about it. It is entertaining on a visual level, but fundamentally we’re dealing with two great genres that don’t go great together.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.