The year is 1873, Jake Lonergan (Daniel Craig) wakes up in the Arizona desert with no idea who he is, and how he got there. He has a strange bracelet on his wrist and a picture of a woman he doesn’t recognise. Before long, he makes friends, and enemies, in the local town of Absolution, but animosity is put to one side when aliens arrive and start snatching people from their homes. It is now up to Lonergan, elusive traveller Ella (Olivia Wilde) and a posse from the town to ride out and save the day.
The concept of Cowboys and Aliens intrigued me from the start. How do we know that aliens only landed in modern times? Doctor Who has proven time and again that aliens have never been limited in the time periods they land in, so Cowboys and Aliens seemed like a good idea for an interesting summer blockbuster. Fan favourite Jon Favreau helms this story of a group of cowboys who decide to take on the invaders that so ruthlessly target them and their people. The reviews coming from the US almost all agree that the concept of the film was favoured instead of the story, but this is not quite true. It is more that the cowboys are fully developed, leaving little space for the aliens to thrive.
Yes, the film tells the story of the cowboys much more thoroughly than that of the aliens, and yes, there are massive gaping plotholes through the film – we never do learn what the aliens really wanted and why they were taking people if what they were really after was precious metals – but this does not stop the movie from being fun.
The cast are obviously having fun with the film; Daniel Craig is pretty great (and greatly pretty) as the monosyllabic outlaw on the run, Harrison Ford revels in the gruffness and rudeness of his character and Olivia Wilde as Ella is enigmatic enough, and beautiful enough, to keep the audience interested; even though she is woefully underused, or underdirected. It’s hard to tell. Add to this Sam Rockwell in a wonderfully understated turn as Doc and Paul Dano as the bratty son of Ford, and the audience is happy enough… So far. The story follows that of many of the great Westerns – something has been taken, and it is up to our heroes to get it back. In this case, the something is people. The Western element of the film is played completely straight, there is no winking at the audience or deliberate tongue in cheek statements; for all intents and purposes, this is a Western, which just so happens to feature aliens as well, and this is what is great about the film.
The problems arise when there is too much focus put on our heroes and their character development, and not enough onto the story and why the aliens are doing what they are doing. The climactic battle is fast paced and interesting with great stunts and great direction. The aliens are pretty freaky looking, and there is a nice theme of ‘lets all work together’ throughout most of the film.
The western, as a genre, has been overdue a comeback for a long time, and Cowboys and Aliens may yet be the film to herald in this revival. Perhaps the ending of the story was written too quickly, perhaps the writers were so enamoured with their creations that they found it hard to not write about them – there is a whole sequence that seems particularly unnecessary – and thus the aliens suffered, or perhaps this was how it was in the comic book. The film is certainly not the film of the summer, but it is a whole lot better than some of the drivel we had to put up with earlier this year. It will not match my movie of the summer and possibly the alien movie of the year – Super 8 – but it is by no means as bad as, say, The Green Lantern.
In short, Cowboys and Aliens is not as bad as you have heard, but it is not as good as you hoped.