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Review: Cowboys & Aliens (2011)

Cowboys & Aliens (2011)

Directed by: Jon Favreau

Premise: Set in the Old West, an amnesiac (Daniel Craig) with a piece of alien technology attached to his wrist arrives at a frontier town. When aliens abduct the townspeople, the stranger leads the survivors on a rescue mission.

What Works: Cowboys & Aliens is a piece of popcorn entertainment and on purely entertainment grounds it is one of the better films of the summer. Directed by Jon Favreau, Cowboys & Aliens has a fun and irreverent tone similar to Favreau’s Iron Man. The film also shows Favreau’s appreciation and skill in dealing with characters and combining the action set pieces with dramatic moments. This is especially true of Harrison Ford’s character, who is much darker and meaner than the kinds of characters that he usually plays. Over the course of the film, the reasons for the cruel disposition of Ford’s character are explored and he has a credible relationship with a young boy played by Noah Ringer that softens the audience’s perception of the character. The other notable performance here is Olivia Wilde as a barmaid with a secret. Wilde possesses a strangely angelic presence in her scenes and she does a lot of subtle acting with her facial expressions and posture that keeps her in the scene even though the script does not give her much dialogue. As implied by its title, Cowboys & Aliens mixes the western and the alien invasion genres, and that mix is a very natural one, since a lot of post-Star Wars science fiction films are essentially westerns set in outer space. The filmmakers have clearly thought out some of the implications of the genres and Cowboys & Aliens has some interesting and even provocative images. The film’s opening scene includes an encounter between the protagonist and a group of bounty hunters carrying the scalps of Native Americans and throughout its story the film brings together conflicts over land and resources to unify settlers and natives against the extraterrestrial invaders. Although Cowboys & Aliens does not delve too deeply into this theme the fact that the film addresses it and does so coherently is impressive and gives the film added intelligence that fans and observers or the western and science fiction genre will appreciate.

What Doesn’t: Although Cowboys & Aliens benefits from its mastery of the best elements of popcorn films, it also very much a Hollywood summer blockbuster and the film is risk adverse to a fault. Like a lot of summer event pictures, Cowboys & Aliens is aimed at the broadest audience possible and so the film does little that could possibly upset or challenge the audience. Although it has a provocative opening, the middle of the film does not have anything nearly as innovative or visceral and by the end, Cowboys & Aliens devolves into a standard sci-fi shoot-‘em-up. The mash up of westerns and science fiction is a juxtaposition of familiar genre conventions and even though it does that well, nothing new is created in the process.

Bottom Line: Cowboys & Aliens is a fun film and fans of both science fiction and westerns (but especially the former) should enjoy themselves. There is not much in this film that is new or innovative but as popcorn entertainment goes, this film is more successful than a lot of them.

Episode: #351 (August 7, 2011)