July 29, 2011



COWBOYS & ALIENS – Watch It At Home:  Genre Mash-Up Zaps Itself In the Foot


It’s admirable, in a way, that for much of its length, COWBOYS AND ALIENS is willing to be more of a western than a scifi extravaganza, even though scifi is a safer commercial bet.  The problem is that as westerns go, it’s not all that impressive–and that goes for its otherworldly dimensions too.

The extended development process for Cowboys and Aliens has been much reported.  It was first acquired for the screen 14 years ago, based on a title and pitch for a graphic novel that hadn’t even been written yet.  Through the years, the project went through prospective studios, directors, stars and many, many writers.  The final film credits include half a dozen of the latter (Damon Lindelof, Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman, Mark Fergus and Hawk Ostley for the script, and the last 2 of those plus original scribe Steve Oederkerk for the story), which in Hollywood means at least twice that many had their hands in it.  Over the years its tone no doubt changed many times, as did the balance between its twin genres.  The ultimate choice for director was Jon Favreau, and the film has a cast of producers to give any studio accountant pause:  Steven Spielberg, Brian Grazer, Ron Howard, Favreau and several of the writers are among those with fingers in the profit pie.  


Despite all those cooks in the kitchen, the film manages to feel all of a piece, but it’s a curious piece.  The main creative decision seems to have been to play against the jokey title that was the reason the project was bought in the first place–the movie has precious little humor, and never plays western conventions against the aliens-from-outer-space genre in any kind of entertaining, let alone provocative or ingenious, way.  Instead, it trots out as many western cliches as a TCM theme night:  we have a Man With No Name (Daniel Craig, eventually revealed to be Jake Lonergan) who rides into a town dominated by all-powerful cattle baron Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford) and his sadistic drunken son Percy (Paul Dano).  Dolarhyde’s chief aide is a Native American (Adam Beach) who’s a much better man than Percy, but Dolarhyde won’t recognize that.  In town, Percy makes trouble for the sheriff (Keith Carradine) and the tenderfoot saloon owner called Doc because he wears glasses (Sam Rockwell); Doc also has a Latina wife (Ana de la Reguera).  There’s also a tough but kind preacher (Clancy Brown) and a boy determined to fight with the men (Noah Ringer)Finally, the town has a gorgeous woman of mystery named Ella (Olivia Wilde).


The story doesn’t do anything with those cliches other than plopping spaceships down beside them.  It begins when Jake finds himself jerked awake in an empty expanse of wilderness; he has almost complete amnesia, and a curious metal bracelet around one arm.  As soon as he reaches town, of course, he antagonizes Percy, which brings Dolarhyde into his life–which is when the alien spaceships attack, taking much of the cast captive for nefarious purposes, and Jake discovers that the bracelet is actually a weapon that can shoot down the ships.  He, Dolarhyde, and most of the surviving town (and eventually some Apaches and outlaws) have to join forces to track down the prisoners and stop the aliens.

This form of Cowboys and Aliens must have satisfied the battalions of studio executives and producers who had to sign off on it, and why not–it’s entirely predictable, made up of pieces of better movies.  Memorable westerns, though, stay in our minds not so much because of their shootouts as the characters and tone, and that’s the case whether the films are John Ford classics, dark, latter-day Clint Eastwood dramas or last year’s Coen Brothers’ snappy remake of True Grit.  Even a Sergio Leone epic like The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, with all its striking imagery, is built in great part around the iconic performances of Eastwood, Eli Wallach and Lee Van Cleef.


There’s nothing comparable in Cowboys and Aliens.  Craig is a perfectly functional hero, but the fact that he’s amnesic forces him to be fairly blank for most of the story.  Ford, of course, has an iconic screen presence of his own, and he manages a few pungent scenes, but there’s little to his character, in large part because Favreau and the writers don’t have the nerve to keep Dolarhyde a bad guy for very long.  Olivia Wilde’s performance makes sense once her Ella is fully explained, but that doesn’t make the character more satisfying.  The rest of the strong supporting cast mostly fades into the background–even Sam Rockwell, for whom the word “irrepressible” is usually apt.

This was a film that badly needed a visual stylist as director, and although Favreau has genuine strengths as a filmmaker, that’s not one of them.  The Iron Man movies have splashy special effects, but they work because of the sharp, witty dialogue and the comic license Favreau gives Robert Downey Jr and the rest of the cast.  None of that comes into play here, and Favreau’s western landscapes and alien action sequences all look pretty dull, even with the great Matthew Libatique (Black Swan and Inside Man, among others) behind the camera.  Harry Gregson-Williams’ score is routine, and the CG aliens and spaceships break no new ground.

Cowboys and Aliens earns some goodwill, because it does mark a change from the superheroes and genetically gifted teens who inhabit our fantasy films these days.  Unfortunately, while it puts on a moderately entertaining show, its only clear accomplishment is wasting a very cool title.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."