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Review: ‘Cowboys and Aliens’

Cowboys, Aliens, and Some Token Native Americans

Above: Waking up without a clue. Daniel Craig is a new kind of Man with No Name in "Cowboys and Aliens."

"Cowboys and Aliens" (opening July 29 throughout San Diego) had it's world premiere at Comic-Con and director Jon Favreau has been courting attendees there for two years.

Last year Favreau (who also directed the "Iron Man" films) wowed Comic-Con attendees by getting James Bond and Indiana Jones to make their first Con appearances. Both Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford (jokingly arriving in handcuffs) attended the 2010 "Cowboys and Aliens" Comic-Con panel and fans went crazy. This year some 2000 fans got to see the world premiere of "Cowboys and Aliens" at the Civic Theater with cast members as well as Steven Spielberg and Ron Howard in attendance. Now the rest of the world can see what Favreau has cooked up as the film opens nationwide.

The graphic novel "Cowboys & Aliens."

Platinum Studios

Above: The graphic novel "Cowboys & Aliens."

Based on the graphic novel of the same name, "Cowboys & Aliens" opens in the New Mexico Territory of the late 1800s. A man (Daniel Craig) awakes abruptly and finds a strange bracelet/shackle on his wrist. He can recall nothing, not even his name. But when some wandering hoodlums try to rob him, he responds with efficient and lethal skill. Whoever he is, he knows how to kick some ass. He arrives in the town of Absolution, a cattle town run by Colonel Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford). The town lives in fear of the cattle baron but all that's about to change when aliens -- the kind from outer space and not just across the border -- invade. These aliens are stealing local citizens and causing mass destruction. Only the mysterious stranger proves able to defeat them as the bracelet on his wrist activates and turns into a weapon.

"Cowboys and Aliens" is inoffensive fun. It's big and noisy and loaded with mindless action. Those I know who read the comic said the source material was mediocre at best. The film, then, may be an improvement. The effects are flashy, the cast is fun (Olivia Wilde adds sexy appeal to the film), and for the most part the action keeps moving. Although for how thin the plot is, "Cowboys and Aliens" should have clocked in at a much leaner and meaner run time.

Harrison Ford and Sam Rockwell in "Cowboys and Aliens."


Above: Harrison Ford and Sam Rockwell in "Cowboys and Aliens."

The title is actually quite telling. It's "Cowboys AND Aliens" as opposed to a more active and combative "Cowboys VERSUS Aliens." That's because there's not really much conflict in the film. Okay, it's also to play off of the children's game of "cowboys and Indians," and Native Americans make a late appearance to help save the planet. But it's a telling title because it de-emphasizes the conflict and instead just throws cowboys, Indians, and aliens together for a genre mash-up. Sure there's a lot of action but it's mostly pursuit and blowing stuff up. Characters are thoroughly one-dimensional, the aliens are never really developed beyond being a nuisance, and the plot is very simple and linear. This is no "District 9" in terms of developing a complex and interesting plot with real interaction between aliens and humans. It's very straightforward and plain. But at least Favreau seems to know that's what he's making so there's no pretense of the film being anything else, and Favreau handles it with efficiency if not innovation or inspiration. It's fun but in a ho-hum kind of way.

There are plenty of opportunities to play off of western or sci-fi genre conventions but Favreau doesn't exploit those chances. He just barrels ahead missing chances to riff on Sergio Leone's Man with No Name or alien invasion films. The screenplay is credited to "Roberto Orci & Alex Kurtzman & Damon Lindelof and Mark Fergus & Hawk Ostby, from a screen story by Fergus & Ostby and Steve Oedekerk." The "&'s" and "and's" are apparently important in the crediting and whenever there are that many cooks preparing the stew there are usually problems. "Cowboys and Aliens" delivers a serviceable but bland script. It's not really bad but it's simply not very clever.

Ford, who has never been a great actor but has been well cast for certain types of roles, looks grizzled as the Colonel and has a couple good lines. Other than that he kind of sleep walks through the film. Craig has taken to his action hero status well and is convincingly badass as the man they eventually call Lonergan. Wilde, who will also be seen in "The Change Up" this summer, is appealing. It's also nice to see Clancy Brown, Keith Carradine, and Sam Rockwell.

Daniel Craig and Jon Favreau on the set for "Cowboys and Aliens."


Above: Daniel Craig and Jon Favreau on the set for "Cowboys and Aliens."

I have to admit that I was a little worried about the effects after seeing the trailer. I had flashbacks of that god-awful mechanical spider from the Will Smith "Wild, Wild West" debacle. But the aliens and their crafts are handled well but again without much imagination. Although it does feel like a new trend in alien design to make them look like insect or mechanical robot bug. "District 9," "Skyline," "Battle LA," and now this have similar design elements moving away from the "ET," big head, big eyed, intelligent aliens.

"Cowboys and Aliens" (rated PG-13 PG for intense sequences of western and sci-fi action and violence, some partial nudity and a brief crude reference) is mindless summer fun that delivers far more fun than the bloated "Transformers 3." But I have to confess that I was hoping for more from the talent assembled for the film.

Companion viewing: "District 9," "Iron Man," "Attack the Block"

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Avatar for user 'The0ne'

The0ne | July 30, 2011 at 11:52 p.m. ― 5 years, 7 months ago

"Although it does feel like a new trend in alien design to make them look like insect or mechanical robot bug."

This is an unfair statement for people like us that enjoys horror and sci-fi movies. Aliens have been made in many forms. The problem is that most audiences will picture what they see/hear/read most about, and that is area51 type stuff. And since Speilberg uses them that's how people come to associate Aliens. Bug type aliens were popular somewhere along my childhood days. So popular Transformers and other toys use them. If your statement is correct both bug type and robot aliens would be a rehash.

I had wanted to go see the movie this past weekend but reviews have not been kind to it. Judging from your review I think I'll pass on it too. However, I do hope you get a chance to go and watch Captain America though. I'm not sure why you haven't yet but can't probably guess you're tire of the Super Hero movies.

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Avatar for user 'Beth Accomando'

Beth Accomando, KPBS Staff | July 31, 2011 at 10:04 a.m. ― 5 years, 7 months ago

I missed Captain America because it opened during Comic-Con and I was busy covering that. I will confess that I went to see Captain America the Sunday night Comic-Con closed at an 11pm screening at the new luxury theater in Del Mar and since I had 12 hours sleep in 5 days I fell asleep in the lazy-boy seats and missed almost the entire film. What I saw I enjoyed but I need to see it again to provide a fair review. But damn those seat were comfy!

My statement about the aliens was just an observation that things tend to go in trends or cycles. You're correct in saying that it is not any kind of innovation in design but it just seemed like recently Hollywood was in bug alien mode.

Thanks for the comment, and don't rush out to COWBOYS AND ALIENS. As I said, it's okay but nothing to get excited about. I look forward to seeing CAPTAIN AMERICA all the way through. But that skinny Chris Evans was a little creepy.

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Avatar for user 'The0ne'

The0ne | July 31, 2011 at 3:24 p.m. ― 5 years, 7 months ago

About the scrawny Chris Evans, you have to really pay attention or else you'll missed the quick and minor details as to why is he the way he is. I'm pretty sure, aside for Cap fans, that most audiences will missed it.

I enjoyed the movie but thought it could have been much better. Certainly was better than Thor and Green Lantern in my view. It could have been more but I think the pacing is just right for a lot of people. Plus, I really think the acting was better and audience could relate to them more so than the other super hero movies, kinda like Spiderman 1.

In any case, hope you enjoy Cap as much as I did.

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Avatar for user 'Beth Accomando'

Beth Accomando, KPBS Staff | July 31, 2011 at 9:04 p.m. ― 5 years, 7 months ago

I just thought it looked creepy because I felt like Chris Evans' head had been placed on someone else's body. I think they did it well and there was a reason for it but it was disconcerting. From what I saw of the film, I too liked it better than Thor but I missed Green Lantern because I went to Baltimore to be a zombie, sorry but I have certain priorities. ;)

Thanks for the comments.

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Avatar for user 'Missionaccomplished'

Missionaccomplished | July 31, 2011 at 10:44 p.m. ― 5 years, 7 months ago

And the winner of this year's "No Shame" Award goes to . . . Harrison Ford!

Past winners: Samuel L. Jackson and Michael Caine.

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Avatar for user 'dialyn'

dialyn | August 2, 2011 at 9:45 a.m. ― 5 years, 7 months ago

I saw "Cowboys and Aliens" yesterday and quite enjoyed it, though I do think you're not giving it enough credit for having some thoughtful moments. The aliens are the weakest part of the film since they seem to be too thuggish to be from a truly advanced race (and why does only one of them have a personal weapon?) and how did such large creatures fit in their relatively small flying machines? The more we thought about it, the more my brother and I thought the aliens depended too much on taking elements from other films. The cowboy side was much better, and they went to some detail to make the cowboys rough and dirty, as I imagine they would be given their life style on the range. Daniel Craig was very good in his role, and it was nice to see Keith Carradine pop up in a small role. My brother and I agreed it was a fine summer film. He had also seen "Captain America," which he liked but noted that it had slow spots that "Cowboys and Aliens" did not have. He would recommend both films. I would say "Cowboys and Aliens" was violent, but in a stylized comic book way. I am not an authority on graphic novels so I've no clue how it compares to its source material, but I enjoyed it on its own terms.

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Avatar for user 'The0ne'

The0ne | August 2, 2011 at 2:53 p.m. ― 5 years, 7 months ago

Wow, this film was rough on me. The characters are not very well defined, especially the main character played by Daniel Craig. His back story is poorly told imo, not unlike the Bourne movies or even The Long Kiss Goodnight play by Gina Davis.

The cowboy confrontations are laughable to me who enjoys a good gun slinger western. Because of the poor back story on the main character just have him act tough just doesn't cut it for me. Any of the cowboys good enough with a gun could have kill him outright, in a second.

The aliens are too bullish for my taste as well, although by this time I was more asleep than anything. I left as I couldn't bare to finish watching it anymore. Very disappointing for me because I had anticipated highly. At least I got Captain America :)

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Avatar for user 'The0ne'

The0ne | August 27, 2011 at 10:10 p.m. ― 5 years, 7 months ago

Alright, ,this is late but I just watched The Smurfs movie and it is much better than Cowboys and Aliens. It is just a fun movie family movie, simple and clean really. Take the kids, enjoy the movie yourself if you ever liked the cartoon series (which I do, a lot). Here's hoping the late readers will read this and go see it! :D

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