Cowboys and Aliens has been out in theaters for awhile now, but I only just got around to seeing it last week. The verdict?
Eh. It’s not nearly as awesome as I’d hoped.
Aliens attack cowboys. Cowboys fight back.
1. Per usual, I’m trying to work out my feelings about this movie as I type out this very review. For a summer action flick, it’s not horrible. I mostly enjoyed myself, and some elements were fairly awesome. But the movie also falters somewhere in the middle and never quite manages to regain its equilibrium after that point. It’s also simply just not epic enough. I mean, this movie is about cowboys fighting aliens! I wanted to be like, aw hell YEAH!
Instead, it’s a little more like oh hey . . . okay.
2. On the upside, we’ve got quite the neat, hodgepodge cast here, so get comfy. I’ll be talking about them for a while.
I like Daniel Craig in this a lot. None of the characters are exactly well developed here, but Craig’s convincing enough as the stranger with the mysterious past who doesn’t give a shit about anybody. (At least, for a little while. We all know how quickly these characters can become redemptive, don’t we? I think so.) Anyway, he’s got a dry sense of humor that I like, and he pairs well with both Olivia Wilde and Harrison Ford. He makes for a good lead.
Likewise, I enjoyed seeing Harrison Ford here as the wealthy sonofabitch character who, in most westerns without aliens, would probably turn out to be the bad guy. Here, he’s just kind of a jerk. And, yes, a bit redemptive. (The town is called Absolution, after all.)
The older Harrison Ford gets, the grumpier he seems, so the role of Woodrow might not have been a huge stretch for him personally . . . but professionally, I’m used to seeing Ford play slightly more likable characters, so it’s kind of a welcome change. His biggest storyline has to do with Adam Beach, but frankly, I liked his scenes with Daniel Craig so much more. I wish they had been given more screen time together. Actually, I kind of wish Harrison Ford had been given more screen time, period.
Olivia Wilde is a good casting choice for Ella. She’s very pretty, of course, and she has a vaguely ethereal look to her that works well for the whole Mysterious Woman character that she’s playing. Like everyone else in this film, Wilde doesn’t exactly have a ton of character to work with here, but she does what she’s supposed to do. And I gotta say, I love the hat, the dress, and the gun belt. That’s a pretty awesome costume.
Sam Rockwell plays a guy named Doc. Well, somebody had to. He’s enjoyable here, if a little underused. His whole character arc centers around not being a pussy and learning how to shoot a gun. Sam Rockwell can deliver a nice hissy fit, so I approve of the casting.
Clancy Brown was just born to be in a Western, wasn’t he? Man, that voice he’s got. You’d expect him to be a bad guy in Cowboys and Aliens, and you’d be wrong. He’s actually Absolution’s kickass preacher, and he’s awesome. I ought to make a list of kickass preachers in movies, sometime. He’ll be relatively high on the list, I think.
Paul Dano is very convincing at being a spoiled little shit. Weirdly, it makes him one of the main comic reliefs. You definitely laugh whenever Daniel Craig slams him into something hard.
Adam Beach doesn’t do a bad job here, but his character, Nat Colorado, is probably my least favorite of the group. He’s Harrison Ford’s right hand man, as well as his sorta-not-really adopted son. His dynamic with Harrison Ford should be pretty interesting, but their relationship is only superficially developed throughout the film, and the resolution of their storyline is irritatingly predictable. It’s not really fair to blame that on Mr. Beach, though.
Keith Carradine is the Sheriff of Absolution. God, that’s a title, isn’t it? The Sheriff of Absolution. Anyway, the Sheriff of Absolution isn’t a huge role, but Carradine owns every bit of screen time he gets. He has a wonderfully dry delivery—even drier than Daniel Craig’s—and I liked him a lot.
Finally, Walton Goggins plays a very small role in this film, yes, but he’s funny and he owns it, and I love the actor. So, yay for Walton Goggins!
3. Cowboys and Aliens does a good job of setting up the story. I like the introduction of all the characters and the town of Absolution itself. When the first big alien attack takes place, you’re kind of invested. I mean, you don’t deeply care about each character—you don’t know them that well yet—but you’ve gotten a glimpse of who they are and what role they play. The first attack scene is action-heavy and suspenseful and a lot of damn fun.
4. Unfortunately, it’s also the best action scene in the film, and it happens maybe twenty-five minutes into the movie. The big climactic battle at the end doesn’t even have half the energy, and I’m not entirely sure why. Part of it’s hampered down, I think, with some very corny moments and dialogue. Also . . . I don’t know, the stakes suddenly don’t seem very high. There’s an element of surprise in the beginning (more on that in the Spoiler Section) that’s just not present in the ending. It’s not horrible stuff, exactly. It’s just not nearly as exciting and badass as I wanted it to be.
5. I will say, though, that the aliens are pretty cool. I like the design of them a lot. You can easily see certain influences (i.e. Geiger), but I thought one anatomical feature in particular was pretty awesome and gross and awesome all over again. (And shut up, perverts. I know what y’all thought when I said one anatomical feature, and I want you to know, I’m ashamed of all of you.)
6. Finally, I was unfortunately spoiled for a plot twist long before I saw the film. I was hoping that it wouldn’t ruin the movie for me, but when they finally ended up revealing it . . . I don’t know, I was just very underwhelmed. The idea of the twist didn’t bother me, exactly, but the way it was done . . . corny. Very corny.
I’m afraid everything else includes spoilers, so if you have not seen this movie and actually plan to at some point, go no further . . .
The aliens are after gold. That’s what they want. Gold.
I don’t feel like recapping this whole movie today, so we’re doing this Cliffs Notes style. (Er, well, my Cliffs Notes style, anyway. Which is still ridiculously long and includes too many parenthesis and arbitrary side notes.)
Okay. So Jake (Craig) is an injured amnesiac who’s wanted by the law and may or may not have killed his pretty hooker girlfriend. (Spoilers: he didn’t.) He makes his way into Absolution, where he quickly gets arrested, but before anyone can try shipping him off somewhere else, aliens attack! Yes!
As it turns out, aliens aren’t big land-fighters. They prefer to fly around, blowing shit up and snatching people right off the ground, which is kind of awesome and creepy and awesomely creepy. The abductions happen very suddenly, which adds a bit to the sense that anyone can be taken. Of course, that’s not completely accurate . . . we all know that Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford won’t be kidnapped, just like we know Sam Rockwell’s pretty wife has to be snatched, in order to justify his whole role in the story. But Percy (Paul Dano) is a tiny bit surprising, if only because he seems like the kind of petty villain that could be dogging Jake the whole movie. And Sheriff Keith Carradine is also a bit surprising because the Sheriff is usually a bigger character in a western film, and the orphaned kid he’s fostering or looking after or something could easily have been the one taken instead. (Maybe the Sheriff’s the grandfather? Shit, I can’t remember now. Anyway, not important.)
Thankfully, Jake and his shiny, mysterious bracelet takes down one of the ships, and the other aliens scatter. He joins up, however reluctantly, with a bunch of townspeople to go after the “demons”. (I will now have to research when the word ‘aliens’ began being used to describe extraterrestrial life.) The townspeople spend most of the movie trying to track the aliens down while getting into scuffles with more aliens and people from Daniel Craig’s shady past. It’s fun for awhile (except the part where Kickass Preacher Clancy Brown gets killed saving the Orphaned Kid . . . boo . . . I mean, predictable, but still, boo) but at some point in the middle of the film, it becomes fairly clear that the plot is just a wee bit thin, and the whole second act is pretty seriously stretched.
But still, the movie’s called Cowboys and Aliens. I wasn’t expecting too much plot, and I didn’t have any serious problems with the film until a few minutes after Olivia Wilde bites it. See, the aliens attack (again) and she and Daniel Craig are off by their own for a little while, running around and working on their respective mysterious pasts and combined sexual tension. Unfortunately, Ella (Wilde) gets skewered, and Jake has to carry her back to the townfolk. It takes too long, though, and she’s already dead by the time he gets there. It’s a good scene, actually. Jake’s worked so hard to get her back to safety, you have to feel a little sorry for him. Even grumpy Harrison Ford feels sorry for him, and he doesn’t like anyone in this movie, least of all the dude who stole his gold.
Of course as soon as this happens, the Indians immediately come out of nowhere and capture the entire party. Seriously, I’m not sure if they were hiding behind strategically placed cactuses or what, but they’re just suddenly there. I figured the Indians would have to come in at some point—Jon Favreau seems to be on a mission to capture every element of a stereotypical western that he can fit into this film—but they seem a little much right here. The fact that they just happen to have the spiritual mumbo jumbo peyote whatever that allows Jake to regain his memories? Double bah. Besides being a cliche, it’s not even necessary. Jake’s already beginning to remember things on his own, and it’s heavily implied that it wouldn’t be taking so long if he actually wanted to remember what happened. Getting to smoke the magical weed feels almost like a cheat.
And, of course, there’s this whole other thing, where the Indians decide to barbecue Ella’s pretty corpse, and she resurrects like a damn angel. Honestly, if a halo had popped up over her head, I would not have been surprised.
It turns out that Ella didn’t just lose loved ones to evil aliens in the past; she is an alien. This is what I was spoiled for going in, and actually, I don’t hate the idea. I even like how Olivia Wilde peers at stuff, particularly Daniel Craig, like she’s an otherworldly being that has little understanding for basic social norms, like you don’t stand a foot away from somebody and silently stare at them, no matter how pretty you (or they) are. But the actual resurrection scene is corny as hell, and the revelation that she’s a “demon” doesn’t really amount to much. I mean, she gets to tell us that the aliens are here for gold, but that’s about it. It doesn’t really move the story forward much, and we don’t get a lot of significant backstory on the aliens themselves.
And the fucking gold thing . . . look, on one hand, maybe gold really is a valuable and rare commodity all over the universe. There’s no real reason that aliens couldn’t want gold for their own, greedy purposes . . . except for the simple fact that it just sounds stupid. If the aliens are actually here for fucking gold, maybe you should devote more than one quick, throwaway line to it, because otherwise, it kind of sounds like you couldn’t come up with a real reason to have the aliens attack. (And frankly, I might have preferred it if there hadn’t been one. The only upswing to this whole thing is that Daniel Craig gets to grin at some jackass and say, “Demons took your gold. When you get to Hell, you can ask for it back.” Probably the best line in the movie, that or when Kickass Preacher Clancy Brown instructs Sam Rockwell on how to use a gun by saying, “Don’t yank on it. It’s not your pecker.”)
Anyway, the townspeople, the Indians, Jake’s old gang, and Resurrected Angel Ella finally find the aliens and attack. People die, but the only important people are Ella (for reals this time) and Nat Colorado. Nat dies in Harrison Ford’s arms, and it should be a tearful moment, but it’s really not. One, because the dialogue sucks, two, because their relationship isn’t given the time or complexity it deserves, and three, because the slow die in someone else’s arms has already happened in this movie, back when Kickass Preacher Clancy Brown bit the big one. And sorry, Nat, but Clancy’s death was way more depressing than yours.
Ella, on the other hand, sacrifices herself after she and Jake free all of the abducted people. She blows up the alien ship while she’s still on it, and while the scene itself isn’t all that bad . . . I don’t know, it just wasn’t as powerful as her first death. Maybe I was still sour about the lame fire resurrection scene, but I just couldn’t make myself care about her this time around. It was like, eh, okay. Next?
And as it turns out, alien abduction really takes a lot out of a person, including some partial to permanent amnesia. Everyone seems to remember who they are, though, except Percy, which is just as well because Percy is kind of a giant turd. Now Harrison Ford has a second chance to make his spoiled brat son into a better person. Yay.
The film ends with everyone in Absolution getting the town back up and running again. Harrison Ford offers Daniel Craig a job (cause nothing makes faster friends than battling aliens together) but Craig’s like, “Yeah, I could use a job,” and then just rides out of town instead. I’m usually all for guys heading “nowhere special” and all, but the whole thing just feels weirdly anticlimactic here. And that’s where the movie pretty much just ends.
Decent acting all around. Some awesome action scenes, but some less awesome action scenes too. Good alien design, but pretty lame alien story. Kind of corny and underwhelming in parts.
Got any gold? Get rid of it. Aliens are coming, and dude. They’re mean.