The title says it all. In Cowboys & Aliens, there are cowboys, and there are aliens. I haven’t seen such a revealing title in years, probably since 2006 and Snakes On A Plane. Perhaps it was a marketing ploy, although I’m not sure what kind of film they were trying to portray to potential movie-goers. Was it supposed to be an edgy genre-mashup? A goofy grindhouse flick? Maybe a heady drama involving intense cross-species relationships? As it turns out, Cowboys & Aliens is none of these. It’s purely an action movie, standard summer fare full of explosions and effects. Sure, there are elements of a Western and some sci-fi in there. These pieces are what save the movie from becoming monotonous through and through. They’re enough to salvage some of the predictable plot and two-dimensional characters, but ultimately fail to bring the film past forgettable.
As I was watching the film, there were two boys, around 12 years old, whispering to each other. The noise was loud enough to be bothersome, and I couldn’t keep from eavesdropping. Listening closer, I figured out that they were trying to predict plot points before they occurred on screen, and the results were embarrassingly accurate. Sample prediction: “I bet the alien will jump out of the water and attack them.” On screen, five seconds later, the prophesy is fulfilled. This happened a number of times throughout the movie, and each correct conjecture made me a little sadder than the last. An intriguing premise was slowly being dismantled, one cliche at a time. It’s the same song, only played with different instruments. The kids knew the tune. I knew it too. The difference was that I was hoping for something new. It’s far too often that story and plot are reduced to a reason for showing off special effects, and Cowboys & Aliens is unfortunately another film in that long tradition.
That isn’t to say that nothing is interesting here, though. Matching up a true Western with a sci-fi movie isn’t something you see very often in Hollywood. The Cowboy portion of the film works well, providing an entertaining introduction to the story and characters as well as fresh respite from the tedious action sequences later on. The film could have remained as purely a Western and worked, if only the second half of the title didn’t exist. I was jarred out of my pleasant, Western bubble every time the aliens were mentioned or referenced onscreen. They’re not mysterious enough to be interesting, nor are they engaging enough to hold appeal. The aliens are simply there for a fight, as many extra-terrestrial beings seem to have been doing in the movies lately.
The characters in Cowboys & Aliens are an interesting bunch. The three main characters, played by Daniel Craig, Harrison Ford, and Olivia Wilde, are efficient and serve their purpose as audience-drawing names, but it’s the side characters that make the movie interesting. Standouts here are Paul Dano, who plays the cowardly bully Percy and Sam Rockwell as Doc. Both characters are unnecessary to the plot, yet necessary to the overall enjoyment of the film. They provide much needed life and comic relief to a movie that sometimes takes itself much too seriously. Like their costars, these characters are tragically shallow, despite the film’s attempts to portray them as otherwise. Craig’s character, Jake Lonergan, starts the movie as a stoic man with amnesia and ends the movie a stoic man without amnesia. Harrison Ford is a hard-ass with a soft spot the whole way through. I attribute much of this two-dimensionality to the sheer quantity of characters portrayed in the film. Cowboys & Aliens introduces and spotlights entirely too many characters, and as a result, the dialogue is spread too thin to really develop or advance any of the roles.
Cowboys & Aliens genuinely tries to present something interesting, but, shackled by the financial pressure of Hollywood and the shallow expectation of summer audiences, it fails to really bloom into anything more than average. The sci-fi/Western crossover is an intriguing idea which creates some memorable moments, yet after all is said and done, Cowboys & Aliens contains all the ingredients for your popular-yet-lacking blockbuster, and, as a result, is a fiercely mediocre film.