Mark Reviews Movies

Cowboys & Aliens


2 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Jon Favreau

Cast: Daniel Craig, Harrison Ford, Olivia Wilde, Sam Rockwell, Adam Beach, Noah Ringer, Paul Dano, Clancy Brown, Keith Carradine

MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for intense sequences of western and sci-fi action and violence, some partial nudity and a brief crude reference)

Running Time: 1:58

Release Date: 7/29/11

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Review by Mark Dujsik | July 28, 2011

One could never accuse Cowboys & Aliens of partaking in false advertising practices. It has cowboys, and, indeed, it has aliens. Unfortunately, that's about all it seems the movie's five screenwriters (working from a graphic novel by Scott Mitchell Rosenberg) thought it needed. There are, after all, limits, even for a high-concept genre movie with a title that sums up almost everything anyone needs to know about it.

The movie functions fairly well as a Western in its first act. There's the intrigue of a nameless hero whose past forces him into action, and the threat of a villainous kid, who likes to shoot off his mouth almost as much as he likes to shoot his pistol, terrorizing a small, struggling mining town. There's the back story of stolen gold, and the determination of a ruthless cattle tycoon guarantees that anyone involved in the robbery of said gold will come to a nasty end. Then the aliens enter, and Cowboys & Aliens loses, not only its grip on reality (which, of course, is to be entirely expected), but also its sense of purpose.

The man with no name, later known to be Jake Lonergan (Daniel Craig), awakens in the middle of the desert with no memory of anything prior (Except, he jokes, English) and with only the clothes on his back and a strange and hefty iron-like bracelet. After killing some men trying to take him into town and taking some of their possessions, he walks to the town, where Meacham (Clancy Brown), the local preacher, fixes up a mysterious wound on his abdomen. Thereafter, Percy (Paul Dano) shows up to start shooting randomly. Jake steps in to stop the kid, and, after a stray bullet hits a deputy, the sheriff John Taggart (Keith Carradine) arrests Percy against his loud, vocal protests stating his father's influence. Jake follows soon behind Percy to the jailhouse, after the law notices his face on a wanted poster for pinching the gold.

Percy's father is Woodrow Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford), whom we meet when he strings up one of his men between two horses as an interrogation method. A bright light immolates a herd of Dolarhyde's cattle (And a couple of employees, though they are of less concern to him), and he's convinced the ranch-hand had something to do with it. Word of his son's arrest arrives, and just as Dollarhyde shows up, strange lights appear in the distance. A group of unmanned ships swoop in, firing explosive rays on the town and swiping some of its citizens with metallic claws.

The remaining townsfolk are types with predetermined character arcs. The town's saloon owner Doc (Sam Rockwell) is the milquetoast sort, whom Percy (and later Dolarhyde) and his boys so easily intimidate that the preacher insists he learn how to shoot a rifle. He's not the only one whose entire development is based upon the inevitable use of a weapon. The sheriff's grandson (Noah Ringer) holds a knife that Dolarhyde gives him for the most of the movie, and it's just a matter of time before he's staring an alien in the face and has to handle the blade in combat.

Some of the other characters, who aren't hauled off in the first encounter or die early into the subsequent hunt, fare slightly better, though the majority of those few remaining based on those requirements are the central ones. Apart from Jake and Dolarhyde, Nat Colorado (Adam Beach), an associate of Percy, relates how he used to listen to Dolarhyde tell stories of his experiences in the war to his young son, so we can predict a scene in which their unspoken surrogate-father-and-son bond is finally vocalized. Of course, there's a lady in the mix. She's Ella Swenson (Olivia Wilde), who knows something about Jake before he does and hides a secret of her own, which only ultimately furthers exposition about the alien invaders (The aliens themselves have a few anatomical curiosities, mainly a chest cavity that splits to reveal a second set of arms, but amount to little more than big, green men).

What's most surprising about the whole affair is how little the screenplay (by Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman, Damon Lindelof, Mark Fergus, and Hawk Ostby) instills a sense of humor into the proceedings. The concept itself is ridiculous, but it's simply not ridiculous enough to carry an entire movie. This is why those characters, who become nothing but fodder for the aliens' guns and talons, are important, or at least, they should be.

Instead, we're left following insignificant characters play the expected notes, with two heroes who have more appeal the less we see them (Jake is a blank slate throughout, and Dolarhyde goes from madman to reasonable the moment creatures from another world appear). Cowboys & Aliens is a trick in search of a show.

Copyright 2011 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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