Review: Cowboys & Aliens

“Fortune and glory, kid. Fortune and glory.” – Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford), Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom

The aliens are having a landmark season with director John Favreau’s Cowboys & Aliens arriving as the fifth major alien film of the summer (eighth if you count Thor, Transformers, and Green Lantern!). And while I would rate Cowboys & Aliens well below Super 8 and Attack the Block, (seriously, if Attack the Block is playing in your city…see it. Right now. Go.) it’s a fun entry in the genre, mostly due to the principal cast of Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford.

Daniel Craig seems poised to cement himself as the new Harrison Ford, the one we know and love from Star Wars, Indy, Air Force One, and the like: The craggily, annoyed, reluctant hero. It’s a role that suits Craig well, and he does a good job not saying much and being a badass. Similarly, Harrison Ford’s role as the disappointed father/entitled cattle rancher is also good for him, allowing him to play a new archetype in a familiar way. His character’s non-sequitors also provide a lot of the humor in the latter half of the film.

As for the supporting cast, the only one who leaves a real impression is Clancy Brown’s Meachum, the local preacher. He may be the only one that feels truly rounded out, and has a lot of nice character moments. Olivia Wilde performs admirably as beauty-turned-exposition-fairy, the key being able to deliver lines of gibberish convincingly (thanks, Dr. House!), though I liked her better in Tron: Legacy. Sam Rockwell is criminally underused as Doc, the local bar owner/nerd. Sam Rockwell is a fantastic character actor, and gloriously chewed scenery in Favreau’s Iron Man 2, but here he comes off as pretty bland.

The aliens in this film definitely fall into the monster mold, like Independence Day or Attack the Block, where they are a force of nature our heroes have to defeat. Although the creature design feels pretty derivative, I find it hard to fault the movie for it, since it’s hard to come up with a convincing original design (although Attack the Block actually pulls this off. Did you see it yet? Because that’s kind of the point).

As a fan of Westerns, I was very excited for this film initially. The genre is mostly forgotten by current filmmakers, and while we get the occasional 3:10 to Yuma or True Grit remake, anytime there’s a Western, I want to give it a shot. I have to say, sadly, Cowboys & Aliens borrows mostly aesthetics of the genre, and not so much from its conventions. It borrows the mythical ‘after the Civil War’ setting and the cool hats and guns, but that’s about it.

There are two central mysteries in this film, the identity of Daniel Craig’s character, and why the aliens come to Earth. The answer to the second questions provides a MacGuffin that is easy to understand, and after three Transformers movies, is extremely refreshing. While we never find out exactly why the aliens need this particular Earth-bound metal, at least they didn’t have to explain what the damn thing is for 20 minutes in the middle of the film.

If you’re looking for a great afternoon matinee, Cowboys & Aliens perfectly fits the bill. It’s a fun ride, and I know it’s the kind of movie I’ll watch on cable about 25 times in the next few years.