Directed by: Jon Favreau
Release date: 2011
Length: 118 minutes
Genre-crossing in movies is nothing new. The film industry has played with this format in a diverse abundance of film, from comedic action to animated horror. However, there’s been very little experimentation between Westerns and science fiction, and with good reason: At first glance, they seem like oil and water. Horseback-riding, quick-draws and saloons combined with laser beams, spaceships, and bug-eyed extraterrestrials? It sounds like a recipe for muddled trouble. Luckily, Cowboys and Aliens is here to prove that myth wrong with a slick, offbeat bang.
The story of the film is just as goofy as the title suggests. A man wakes up in 1873 Arizona with no memory, a mysterious metal cuff attached to his arm, and an impressive grasp of hand-to-hand combat. After wandering into a nearby town, he soon finds the law on his back allegedly for murder, but that falls by the wayside when saucermen swoop down on the town and kidnap many of the citizens. After discovering that the unknown man’s silver cuff is actually an alien weapon that allows him to destroy the ships, the search party of hardened cowboys reluctantly drags him along on a cross-plains trip to rescue the men’s families and destroy the intergalactic intruders.
For such an absurd concept, the filmmakers managed to get their hands on some great talent. Daniel Craig as the amnesiac man convincingly exudes the vibes of an experienced Wild West outlaw. Harrison Ford seems born to play his role of a grizzled cattle rancher with a short temper. Olivia Wilde as the love interest, and a woman who once escaped an alien attack, gets a bit lost among all the star power, but she holds her own well enough so as not to distract.
What shocked me the most was the presence of actual character development, which helped make the principal players feel much more three-dimensional. Craig's angry cowboy softens his attitude, Ford's cattle rancher learns the value of family, and Wilde's drifter becomes a leader. In a film like this, where the novelty of the weird concept is enough to pull it forward, it was pleasant to find these elements.
The film’s largest disappointment is in the uneven handling of the Western and sci-fi. While the deeper characters of the Western half work very well, the alien side of the film suffers a bit. Those antagonists – portrayed as gooey, multi-limbed creatures – exude cliché on top of cliché, and their reason for attacking the earth is laughably inconceivable. No matter how good the protagonists are, their efforts seem pointless without worthy villains. It isn’t a deal-breaker, as the newness of seeing little green men in a Western setting is fun in itself, but for the most part, the aliens are just slimy, moving targets for the cowboys.
The action of the film isn’t terribly original or thrilling, but it gets the job done with a few tense, Clint Eastwood-style standoffs and high-flying spaceship chase sequences. If anything, the explosive set pieces are unbalanced across the run time, leaning much more heavily toward the film’s climax. Up until the final half hour, it’s largely exposition with the occasional grim pistol pointing, but during the conclusion, it’s nonstop action and fighting. This may have been an attempt to integrate the local styles of the respective genres, with the quick shootouts of Westerns and the intense firefights of science fiction flicks, but it comes off as incongruous. This is only a minor misstep, though, as these separate styles of the film are enjoyable on their own.
Regardless of the film’s oddly placed genre elements, a relatively consistent tone of utter seriousness is maintained throughout. This adds a great deal to the disbelief suspension, because when I was watching a straight-faced Ford fire a shotgun into a gigantic creepy-crawly’s stomach while riding by on horseback, I didn’t even so much as raise an eyebrow. It was only during the credits that I realized how truly odd a beast this is, and it is owed mostly to the impressively rigid tone. Considering the genre blend is this kooky, you’ll find yourself laughing at the movie’s set-up surprisingly little.
For uproarious entertainment, you can’t go wrong with this unique little number. It’s got believable characters, decent action and a solid tone. Potentially, the film might alienate fans of straight-laced Westerns or tech-filled sci-fi flicks, as they aren’t balanced quite as well as one might hope. Still, if you’re willing to take the plunge on something that doesn’t paint by the numbers, this is your film. I'd give this a 7 out of 10.