The mere concept of Cowboys & Aliens had potential for summer greatness. This could have been crazy, ambitious, and all kinds of weird. Imagine cowboys getting into shootouts with bug-eyed creatures packing high-tech weaponry. Sounds awesome, right? Only a tad of that awesome made it to the screen, and overall, it’s good. One would think director Jon Favreau would use his clout from two hit films to craft a blockbuster with a little audacity, but he didn’t.
Like his other works, this is about as safe as most blockbusters come, and that’s fine, mainly because the director is still miles ahead of most journeyman filmmakers. There’s a clear passion for clean fun in his movies, something many blockbusters lack.
Iron Man, Zathura, and Elf are all audience-friendly fare that don’t have a lick of divisiveness, and Cowboys & Aliens fits in comfortably with those films. Faverau is, at the end of the day, a solid popcorn filmmaker. Most of his efficiency behind the camera shines through in Cowboys & Aliens, as do a few of his weaknesses.
Here’s a little of that awesome and a bit of the weaknesses.
Note: This list does include spoilers.
Things I Liked:
10. Worst Evolution Ever
I know, everyone has mentioned this. Has anyone labeled this as a pro for the film, though? It doesn’t appear that way, so I might be the first to do so. How can one not howl with laughter at having open-chested aliens? Perhaps on their planet, having a vulnerable easy-to-kill heart is a good thing, but that’s doubtful. Oddly, the concept is not even used much. Besides one scene, there aren’t too many heart killings. Why have such a ludicrous detail, especially when it could have been cut and saved some effects cash? Either way, it’s hilarious that evolution would screw over these aliens so badly.
9. That’s a Cool Mother Ship
Great production design made the mother ship a wonderful setting full of horror oriented possibilities. It provided a nice backdrop and atmosphere that made the third act work better than it should have. A whole movie could have this ship as a its setting, and Favreau used it effectively. Seeing Lonergan, Dolarhyde, and Ella exploring the place was great fun.
8. Daniel Craig vs. Paul Dano
The early interactions between Daniel Craig’s dead serious anti-hero and Paul Dano’s snot-nosed kid lightened the mood perfectly. There’s great chemistry between the two, more than what Craig and Wilde shared. It’s odd that they would cut their comic relationship short — and so early — with Dano’s abduction, but all the moments they had together earned every laugh. Their interactions showed the movie wasn’t all about being serious and that, first and foremost, it wanted to be fun.
7. Half Their Work is Done with Anamorphic on Their Side
If there’s one thing you can’t fault the film for, it’s the visuals. Matthew Libatique brought a lush and epic look to the film, which was obviously accomplished with going the anamorphic route. I mean, seriously: Libatique shot the hell out of those vast landscapes, and he also made one very cool color reversal scene. This is by far Favreau’s most impressive film on a stylistic level. Visually, the director has made a blockbuster that stands out.
6. Good Actors Making Something Out of Almost Nothing
Sam Rockwell, Clancy Brown, and Adam Beach gave substance to roles that doesn’t ask much of them. Brown and Beach bring a certain level of heart to their roles, and effectively so. Rockwell’s rise to manliness is not a triumphant change, but per usual, he’s a solid presence who has by far the best line in the movie: “I don’t know much about boats, but that’s an upside down boat.”
5. Favreau Ain’t No Tease
Revealing the alien the way Favreau did was a bit of brilliance. In clearly evoking Ridley Scott‘s Alien, the director made a tense and excellent intro — there was a sense of terror in the big reveal. He didn’t pull an Abrams, who hid his alien for far too long, and with no legitimate reason to. Here, the characters saw the alien in a wonderfully dark, atmospheric scene, so Favreau made sure that we did, too.
4. Daniel Craig is So Damned Cool
When Daniel Craig is on his game, there’s a seamless coolness factor to the star. Craig is a true man’s action lead. He doesn’t look boyish, but instead like he could easily snap your neck if you whisper one false word. The man with eye-blinding baby blues does the nameless hero archetype strongly, and there’s a sense of violence and vulnerability to the character that the actor nails. Unlike most supposed heroes, Lonergan gets things done.
3. Harrison Ford in Charming Gruff Mode
Okay, so Dolarhyde didn’t end up being the cold-hearted bastard that everyone in the town oddly implied. The character is gruff and strong-headed, but not the violent monster he was built up as. However, this nitpick isn’t particularly bothersome when you consider that Harrison Ford marks this as his return as a great screen presence. The legend was not heavily involved in the action beats, but when he appeared onscreen, fun ensued. Ford is known for seeming disinterested in the past couple of roles he’s taken, not this time.
2. Cowboys & Aliens? Where’s the Joke in That?
Jon Favreau (or the many credited writers on the script) never condescend to the inherently silly material. Both the people in front of and behind the camera still played it straight. They’re going for real stakes, real character arcs, and real emotions. The success of those intentions vary, but it’s admirable that Favreau didn’t make this in the jokey vein of Wild, Wild, West. There’s a real grimness and horror to the film at times.
1. This Is a Western… At Least, the Setup is
The first 30 minutes are excellent. An engaging mystery begins, the tone was wonderfully established, character arcs start with interesting directions to go in, and the slow burn pace worked. The first act hooks one in quickly, and Favreau perfectly sucks you into the grounded world he’s trying to create. Like the first Iron Man film, the director finds a level of realism that audience can connect to before the ridiculousness kicks in.
Things I Didn’t Like:
5. Epilogue Schmepilogue
The final scene is pretty expendable. Do we need to see that everyone is happy, and that things are better than ever? It’s a nice and obvious touch to see Lonergan ride off, but why not end with him at his old place after finding a new identity? His whole arc was about redemption and discovering who he is, so when he’s reached that point, there’s no real reason to keep going. Favreau has had multiple endings before, but this time it feels unnecessary.
4. Olivia Wilde as Cliff Notes for Cowboys & Aliens
For the first hour, it was odd seeing Olivia Wilde stare off all bug-eyed. After 5 minutes of Ella Swenson continuing to do so, you quickly realize she is an alien (or an angel…). Due to the lack of subtlety, the mysteriousness disappears, but you still have to wait another hour for them to explain what she is. Until that point, and onward as well, Ella spells out everything. She’s more of an exposition machine than a fully-realized character. The best part about Ella was the idea that Lonergan, basically, was interested in sleeping with an alien.
3. Straight Face Turns to Goofy Straight Face
As I said above, the first act sets up a perfect tone; it’s serious, but not too serious where it lacked fun. Right after the first attack, that refreshing sensibility got traded for a goofier face that the movie wore. It became like any other summer movie, missing the distinction of the opening. Conveniences, gaps in logic, and every other basic action movie stamp began to show up. The film remained fun, but not in the way it initially set out with. What could’ve been a fantastic western with a twist became a conventional summer movie.
2. There Aren’t That Many Aliens in Cowboys & Aliens
Despite the size of their base, there only seemed to be about 50 or so mindless aliens. The final battle was not big enough, and part of the reason was the lack of big alien packs attacking. Not only that, but they’re not that threatening by the end. The aliens come off as easy to kill at times, and they’re also extremely stupid. If they’re terrible fighters in sunlight, then why go outside to battle? Why not let the cowboys bring the fight to you on home turf? Why go out flying during the day time when you can barely see?! Even with their advanced tech, they’re laughably boneheaded.
1. Breathe, Final Action Scene, BREATHE.
Jon Favreau just can’t seem to catch a break when it comes to end battles. Iron Man, Iron Man 2, and now his latest all lack grand finales. Inside and outside the mother ship, nearly every action beat felt rushed. The film started out with a big canvas that slowly and slowly got a little too small by the end, and the action almost became comical. When Dolarhyde went into the alien ship to find Lonergan, he conveniently and quickly found him right before the hero got chopped to bits. Lonergan also managed to, somehow, pull a rifle out of his ass to save Dolarhyde.
The best part about these flaws? They can be enjoyed on an ironic level. It brought an unevenness to the film, for sure, but the film remained fun. Neither bloated or paper-thin, Cowboys & Aliens is simple, well-crafted entertainment.