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Cowboys & Aliens: A Hollow Hybrid

By Ryan Mason · August 1, 2011

When you walk into a movie called Cowboys & Aliens at the local multiplex nearing the tail end of the summer months, the most you can truly ask for is that it at least lives up to his title. And Cowboys & Aliens delivers exactly that: cowboys and aliens. What it doesn’t bother to offer, however, is any sense.

I know, I know. What’s the point in being concerned with logic when your chosen method of hot weather diversion involves extraterrestrials abducting humans somewhere in the Wild West sometime in the 1800s? I’ll tell you why, since you were so kind as to ask: because movies need to make sense within their own established universe, even when that world has gold mining ETs who can’t see well in the daylight. You don’t get a pass just because you have fantastical elements in your movie that don’t exist (that we know of) in the real world. And now, looking back on Cowboys & Aliens, it’s just full of gaping holes in logic that director Jon Favreau and the writing teams of Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman, & Damon Lindehof and Mark Fergus & Hawk Ostby (along with screen story by Steve Oedekerk) just hope that we won’t bother to dwell on because we’re too busy being entertained with roughneck guys on horseback with six-shooters and lassos fighting advanced space-beasts.

More on what doesn’t gel in a moment. What does work is the cast. It’s nice seeing Harrison Ford back on the big screen doing the grizzled curmudgeon that is his staple as he’s well into the twilight of his career and Daniel Craig giving us more ice-cold, 007-esque steely stares and physical dominance that we’ve come to expect from his two outings as the iconic superspy. Throw in the always solid Sam Rockwell as a timid doctor-slash-barkeep, Keith Carradine as the town sheriff (and winner of the film’s Best Mustache award), and Paul Dano stealing scenes as the pathetic, spoiled drunkard son of Ford’s Woodrow Dolarhyde and you have a solid main and supporting cast that make the most of their roles. Olivia Wilde also shines, doing more than just providing good looks to the proceedings as Ella, a mysterious woman who can clearly take care of herself. This isn’t high drama, but the actors have enough to work with to make them all believable and relatable.

Sadly, the same attention wasn’t paid to plot points and other details that should’ve been exhilarating not eye-roll inducing. Cowboys & Aliens starts off solid enough, focusing on the titular cowboys with a setup befitting an engaging entry in the Western film canon: Man With No Name wanders into town with a bizarre (alien?) bracelet on his right wrist – looking extremely similar to the face on a wanted poster – and makes mean with the local cattle baron’s trigger-happy son, landing them both on their way to visit the federal marshal. And then UFOs show up, blowing up buildings and yanking people up into the air with their own metallic lassos, providing the second-half-of-the-title’s promise.

Why these interstellar beings would need actual lassos to pluck humans up into their spaceships isn’t explained, but hey, that’s a nice nod to the whole time period and maybe an allusion to life’s evolution. That’s not a big deal. But, we never find out why they’re abducting people. Clearly, we all associate UFOs with sucking poor souls into the night sky to perform experiments on them, but in a movie, we need some sort of reasoning. Especially when the aliens’ purpose for even being on our planet is for something else entirely. I think Wilde’s Ella – who mainly exists to provide blatant exposition in the second act – mentions something about how they’re trying to find our weaknesses (aside from our total inability to not be abducted in the first place, of course), although that doesn’t cut it. There should be a point to something as important as the first act turn, otherwise there’s just not that much gravitas to everything that follows.

And even Ella’s rationale could be enough justification if that were the only infraction. But when Craig’s Jake Lonergan (whose name sounds more like an Irish gangster from the ‘20s than a cowboy) manages to use his newly found arm bracelet – which happens to be a powerful, alien weapon – to better effect than the creators of said bracelet, it gets to be a bit too much to accept. There’s one particular moment where an alien horde rushes at Lonergan in an enclosed space and none of them bother to even take a clean shot at him, preferring to just run at him and get mowed down like when you play Halo on God mode. They have all this amazing technology that allows them to travel through space, land on another planet that happens to have an atmosphere that is perfectly adequate for their biology, mine our gold, capture and imprison our kind at will, and shrink an energy-bursting weapon capable of taking down one of their own ships into a bracelet, yet a group of them don’t have the sense or ability to even take Lonergan off his feet before being completely decimated? I’m not buying it.

Favreau and the slew of writers could’ve had a lot of fun by playing with those Western tropes, mixing aliens in with our John Fordian expectations, maybe even having a standoff a la the OK Corral where the cowboys use their knowledge of the terrain to give themselves an upper-hand to the clearly more advanced alien invaders. Instead it devolves into something that, had cowboys not been in the role of the humans trying to save the planet, would’ve been right at home on the SyFy Channel.

So, yes indeed, there are plenty of both eponymous icons in Cowboys & Aliens. But unfortunately, simply putting them together for the first time on the big screen doesn’t automatically make for a good movie.