Cowboys And Aliens declares exactly what it wants to be with the title, an attempt to make a peanut-butter-and-chocolate combination of two great genre flavors to see if they taste even better together. The movie can’t really be described as a rousing success, nor is it anything approaching an abysmal failure either.
It’s good, just not great. Jon Favereau captures the old fashion Western tropes effectively and the alien action scenes are not without their entertaining charms. The film feels like it’s exactly what it should be, but lacks anything truly special. I suppose I should be celebrating the fact that it delivers on the title and provides just enough entertainment to make popcorn go down smoothly. Yet, somehow this feels like a disappointment, even if it’s ever so slight of one.
The plot is barebones and should be instantly recognizable to anyone who has seen a Western before. Daniel Craig plays the typical outlaw who wanders in town with nothing but a horse, a gun, and a mysterious past. The twist is that the gun is a laser gun attached to his wrist, though he doesn’t know what it is or how he got it yet due to amnesia. It all starts to fall into place once some rootin’ tootin’ aliens fly into town, blow shit up, and kidnap people. Then in classic Western fashion, a posse is formed to go get em’ lead by Craig and Harrison Ford as a worn-out town heavy with money, power, and a kidnapped son. It’s a basic Western set up with aliens substituted for Indians, though the Indians do appear to aid in the quest towards the end. Then there’s a girl because there always is. The impossibly clean and beautiful (for a Western setting) Olivia Wilde takes on the role and sticks out from the filthy pack of testosterone like a sore thumb, but that’s quickly explained away by her connection to the aliens. You can probably guess where things go from there.
Cowboys And Aliens is more of a Western than a science fiction movie. The aliens are pretty well just faceless villains. The characters, setting, pacing, and structure of the movie are all deeply indebted to the Western and Favreau clearly loves and respects the form. His Western world is fully formed and reminiscent of classic titles in the genre. He casts his Western types well with Craig being a perfect quietly mysterious hero, Harrison Ford actually acting for the first time in years as the grizzled old cowboy set in his ways, and Sam Rockwell providing humor and heart as the non-confrontational business man forced by circumstance to become a hero. Favreau nails all the genre elements so well that you almost wish the guy had just made a pure Western. The aliens obviously provide a twist, but it doesn’t really affect the story structure substantially. It’s a stock B-movie Western plot with a posse seeking revenge, conflicting characters who have to reconcile for the greater good, and an action finale where everyone gets what they want before the mysterious hero wanders off into the horizon. It’s so old fashion that it’s almost boring to watch it play out beat by beat as expected with the drooling aliens not adding much beyond amped-up action and expensive special effort.
I did say “almost boring” and not “boring” however. While Cowboys And Aliens can often feel like something’s missing, it still delivers those sweet, sweet summer movie goods. It’s a fun movie and one that feels pleasingly old fashion despite the CGI aliens. A simple story told well actually feels refreshing in a time when Michael Bay ignores narrative convention in favor of pretty explosions and sexy ladyparts. With the same cast and an even slightly more ambitious script, I think that Favreau could have made an excellent modern western to follow up his success with the Iron Man series. As it stands, he instead made a perfectly effective summer blockbuster that should keep him in the big leagues amongst Hollywood directors. Cowboys And Aliens an odd movie because it at once delivers exactly what you’d expect, yet feels somewhat disappointing based purely on the talent and track record of those involved. It’s worth checking out, but expecting anything more than bare minimum genre entertainment will set you up for disappointment.