Review: Cowboys and Aliens

Aug 1, 2011 | Reviews

Another film review. How do I manage it?

The chopping block’s latest victim is Cowboys and Aliens, the sci-fi western what-the-hell-am-I-watching directed by Jon Favreau, and starring far too many good actors to really give everyone the screen time they deserve. As always, spoilers follow – and you may actually care this time, because the plot isn’t entirely predictable.


A mystery man (Daniel Craig) wakes up in the desert of New Mexico with amnesia and an odd metal bracelet around his wrist, and is immediately set upon by some thugs to get things moving along. He promptly kills them, takes their stuff, and rides into the town of Absolution – a one horse place ruled by a old guy called Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford), whose son Percy is a weedy, annoying bully. So far so cliched, I guess… After the son is predictably assholish to the mystery man and gets his butt kicked, Percy accidentally shoots a US Marshal and gets tossed into the jail. The mystery man gets noticed by the town sheriff, who figures out that he’s really¬†Jake Lonergan, wanted criminal.

One saloon altercation later and Jake is in the cell next to Percy, and they’re both going to be taken before a judge elsewhere. That night, the sheriff plans to leave with them in the western equivalent of a paddy wagon. Enter Dolarhyde, who doesn’t want his son to go to proper jail, and wants Lonergan so that he can execute him for stealing a load of gold bullion from him a while back.

Up to this point, this was a pretty good western movie, if a little run of the mill. I was enjoying it, anyway – Daniel Craig is a very good cowboy. Unfortunately, here’s where it veers off into a bad case of the crazy.

Aliens! Lights appear in the sky, snatching people everywhere. Lonergan’s mysterious bracelet suddenly powers up, and he uses it to shoot down one of the craft. Dolarhyde’s son is taken, and the alien pilot runs off into the night and leaves a convenient trail for the resident Indian hunter stereotype to follow.

Cue the next morning – the posse rides out, consisting of Dolarhyde’s men, a few townspeople, the sheriff’s grandson, a woman called Ella with an unreasonable interest in Lonergan (Olivia Wilde), and Lonergan himself after a brief detour to see if he can get some memories back. They track the alien to a Mississippi style riverboat that’s somehow sitting upside down 500 miles inland and might as well have ‘BAD IDEA’ written all over it. That night, the alien attacks and kills the preacher who came with them, and we get to see it properly – it’s of the big, leaping, slimy, clawed, scary kind, like Geiger Aliens but without the pants-wetting terror.

More tracking, and they follow it through an canyon and into an ambush by none other than Lonergan’s old gang, who are not really all that pleased to see him. They escape as more alien ships attack and try to kill or snatch the outlaws. Ella gets taken, and Lonergan does some death defying stunts to save her. Unfortunately, the alien pilot knocks her around before he kills it, and she gets badly hurt and dies before getting back to the rest of the posse.

At this point, they’re ambushed again by Indians.

Much arguing and sabre-rattling ensues at their camp, with the Indians accusing the white dudes of bringing the evil demons down on them. For reasons known only to themselves, Ella’s body is chucked onto the fire at this point. More arguing and shouting continues until her body mysteriously explodes and it transpires that she’s not human, OMG, but actually another alien! A friendly alien, in fact, who wants to stop the same thing that happened to her planet. Much exposition occurs, and it’s revealed that the bad aliens are here to steal all the gold(?) and study humans for their weaknesses. The Indians feed Lonergan some herbs that help to jog his memory, and he remembers where the main alien base is – along with the fact that he was abducted and they were planning to chop him up when he overpowered his captors, nicked the bracelet, and wandered out into the desert through a convenient underground tunnel.

The Indians, townspeople, and remains of Lonergan’s old gang (after some persuasion by Lonergan) all go to the main base to kill them some aliens and free their lost people. Everyone bar Lonergan and Ella attack and create a distraction while they go in through the convenient tunnel and find the abductees. This all goes to plan until Ella charges off on her own, and declares that they have to destroy the base completely or it will all be for nothing – and for that she needs Lonergan’s bracelet. The base is actually the alien mothership too, and if she gets the bracelet to the core, it’ll blow it up.

She gets into the base and the door closes behind her. Lonergan is left to make a fighting retreat against the alien that tried to chop him up initially, only to be saved at the last minute by Dolarhyde who came to find him and Ella. They both get out as the ship takes off, and as it rockets off into the sky, it gets blown up by her. Whoever is left alive after the battle, and the abductees, head back to town and count their blessings that it’s all finally over.

This, by the way, is not a complete description of the plot. I’m leaving out everything but the bare minimum, and the fact that this is very much cut down should give you some idea of the madness that is Cowboys and Aliens. It suffers from an excessive amount of plot and characters, as if its trying to crush a whole TV series into a scant two hours.

There’s Sam Rockwell, playing Doc, the saloon owner. He’s got his own story, which is briefly hinted at as he’s terrorised by Dolarhyde’s son, loses his wife to the aliens, goes with the posse and tries to learn how to shoot, finally figures out how to shoot in the last battle and saves Dolarhyde from a rampaging alien warrior, and eventually gets his wife back. This irritated me if only because Rockwell is one hell of an actor, and tossing him into such an irrelevant role is something of a waste.

Dolarhyde’s son, Percy (played by Paul Dano), was a perfect, petty small town bully who swiftly finds himself in over his head when the aliens attack and he’s abducted. He promptly vanishes until the end of the movie. There’s sod-all interaction between him and his father, which makes that particular relationship somewhat muted even though Dolarhyde is essentially risking life and limb against criminals, Indians, and eventually aliens in order to get him back. And there’s something else there too with the Indian tracker guy in his employ, who looks up to Dolarhyde as a father figure or whatever.

The town sheriff, John Taggart, is abducted as well, and his grandson Emmett rides out with the posse to help get him back. Emmett faces off against the alien in the riverboat, nearly gets killed, acts as a lookout in the final battle, and manages to knife one of the alien warriors. There’s yet another side plot thread about how Dolarhyde talks to him about being a man, or something.

Lonergan has all this back story about how he stole the gold bullion from Dolarhyde, skipped out on his gang, and ran off to his girlfriend/wife/whatever to live happily ever after. The aliens attacked, took the gold and snatched them both for dissection. She died, he escaped. His gang were unsurprisingly miffed about being dumped, and there’s yet another side plot going on there about how he left them for a whore and why should they help him now and…

You know, usually I go on about movies being badly written, and normally that’s because they don’t have enough actual story in between the obligatory fight sequences. In this case, it’s the complete opposite. There’s too much going on, too many characters, and trying to hold it all together while you watch it is an exercise in frustration. Half the cast could have been cut with no effect on the main plot, and, in fact, I would argue that they should have cut much of the superfluous baggage and just added more action, preferably of the western shoot-out variety.

I can’t fault any performances by the actors, however. I have noticed that Daniel Craig seems to pick up a lot of roles that involve getting beaten up and covered in blood or dirt, and I’m not sure that’s such a bad thing because no one ¬†– NO ONE – can convince me that he is good-looking. But he’s a good actor, make no mistake about that. Harrison Ford makes for a great grumpy ex-army guy. All the guys playing small bit parts did a great job, despite the short time they were on screen.

The actresses, however, I have a problem with. And let’s be honest here – the only reason I can say ‘actresses’ is because there were two women other than Olivia Wilde with a speaking part – Doc’s wife, Maria, who got a couple of lines when she wasn’t being abducted and therefore missing for most of the movie, and Alice, Lonergan’s dead significant other who got a few lines in a flashback. This pretty much leaves Ella to be the token female amongst all the cowboys, who carries a gun but I cannot recall that she ever actually fires it, and who largely got to stand around and look pretty but not actually take part in any of the action sequences – except to get snatched by an alien pilot at one point, and need rescuing by Lonergan.

And, by the way, after she regenerated or whatever, she also got to walk out of the fire arse naked. Impressed I am not.

I’d let this go under different circumstances. See Gwenyth Paltrow in Iron Man, for example – again, a case of a token female amongst the guys, but as I’ve said before, Pepper Potts is such an important character in the movie and Paltrow plays her so well that I’m prepared to forgive a lot of flaws. Here, though, Olivia Wilde is eye candy. She’s irrelevant to the plot and a stranger to the protagonist (Lonergan, who keeps telling her to leave him alone) until she’s revealed as an alien, then she becomes a convenient plot device and exposition source. There’s some attempt to build up a relationship between Ella and Lonergan, but it’s pretty weak, the time just isn’t there to do it properly what with all the other plot threads going on, and it seems to be mostly based on how she looks a little like Alice. Ella’s eventual sacrifice is pretty much meaningless as a result, because she’s simply not important on an emotional level to any of the other main characters.

Part of my issue with this is that Olivia Wilde’s acting was wooden. She didn’t seem to display any kind of strong feeling, even when it would be appropriate and almost vital. I don’t know if I should put this down to the writers once again failing at female characters or her performance just being lacking in general, but it wasn’t good enough and it seemed pretty damn obvious when the cast around her were putting in their best. One point that really stuck in my mind was when we got a quick scene with her in the core of the alien spaceship, and the bracelet is about to explode and destroy them all, including her, and all she does is hold it close and look up with her eyes closed. Somewhat anti-climactic, perhaps? Compare this to Mary O’Brien (played by Emily Watson) in Equilibrium, a film so underrated that it makes my head hurt. She hadn’t that much screen time, but her performance is powerful stuff and her eventual death is one of the most gut-wrenching scenes you’re likely to see in any sci-fi movie – in my opinion, anyway.

So, in summary: whether you will enjoy this movie seems to be based on whether you can get your head around all of the plot that’s constantly being tossed at you. Jon Favreau is a great director who I will always appreciate, and it’s a shame the writers seemed to have completely lost the run of themselves under his command here. There are issues with the female characters, and the representation of women in the film, but saying that about an action movie these days seems to be like saying it will have explosions in it and the DVD release will come in a box.