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Cowboys & Aliens (2011 film)

A Fantasy Western film directed by Jon Favreau.

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Ride 'em, E.T.!

  • Jul 30, 2011
Star Rating:

My concern was that the science fiction and western elements of Cowboys & Aliens would not be able to meet halfway. Can you blame me? On paper, I cannot think of a more awkward pairing of genres. I envisioned a disaster along the lines of The Warrior’s Way (which fused the western with martial arts), or going back much further, Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter (the western and horror, which I happened to catch one Saturday night on an episode of Elvira’s Movie Macabre). Thankfully, director Jon Favreau and his screenwriters managed to combine the two without making it seem unnatural. Stylistically, the film is a precarious balancing act; make it too jokey or too serious, and you will immediately lose the audience. The film is nothing close to camp, but on the same token, it’s not so somber that it fails to be kind of fun.
Even so, the plot is straightforward but thematically murky, and the characters, while competently written and performed, feel strangely aloof. It even calls into question the science fiction element, which seems less like an opportunity for idea making and more like an excuse for action and special effects. There’s nothing innately wrong with an escapist alien invasion movie – I think most of us had a great deal of fun watching Independence Day. But specific scenes make it clear that Favreau was trying to dig a little deeper; the more you attempt to send a message, the more out of place stunts, pyrotechnics, and CGI become. The latter are typically relied upon for padding stories founded on flimsy ideas. If you don’t believe me, feel free to watch the Transformers movie of your choice.

Adapted from the graphic novel by Scott Mitchell Rosenberg, the film takes place in the Southwestern desert circa the late 1800s. It tells the story of a man (Daniel Craig) who awakens with a start in the middle of nowhere with a wound on his side and a strange metal shackle around his wrist. He has absolutely no memory of how he got there, or even of who he is. He is, however, in full command of his ability to speak, as well as his capacity to take on men with guns. Desperate for answers, he wanders into the small desert community of Absolution, where he discovers he’s a wanted outlaw named Jake Lonergan and is soon arrested. He’s especially high on the hit list of Colonel Woodrow Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford), a gruff, hard-hearted cattle farmer and former military man. One night, as Lonergan is about to be transferred to another city, strange lights appear in the sky, causing the shackle to light up. Absolution is then attacked in a blaze of alien firepower, and a number of the locals are abducted like fish on hooks.
A handful of the remaining townsfolk, including Lonergan, set off to find their loved ones. For Dolarhyde, it’s personal; his cowardly, reckless, and bratty son Percy (Paul Dano) is among those abducted. At Lonergan’s side is Ella Swenson (Olivia Wilde), who always seems to know more than she lets on. She wants Lonergan to regain his memory as badly as he does. Fragments slowly but surely piece themselves together, hinting at a woman he loved, a robbery, and gold pieces that mysteriously melted together before being sucked out of the house through the roof. We also get flashes of a metal slab, some bizarre-looking restraints, and glowing instruments of torture. As his memory resurfaces, the people of Absolution and a tribe of Apache Indians cross paths, and since they have a common enemy, they quickly join forces. This will have a profound effect on Dolarhyde, known for slaughtering Indians, and on the Apache chief (Raoul Trujillo), who up until now never trusted a white man.

Thematically, it seems clear that the alien invasion is an allusion to the European settlers and their hostile takeover of Native American nations. There is, however, a flaw to this interpretation; whereas the settlers immigrated to the New World in search of religious freedom, the aliens in this film are merely miners that see Earth as a resource for gold. Because of this, the film’s other major thematic allusion – Manifest Destiny – suddenly falls flat. The aliens are not forcefully developing new territories in the arrogant belief that it was wise and apparent. Their hostile treatment of humans is never adequately explained, apart from a vague reference to us being like insects to them; if aliens are invading my planet, they better have a damn good reason apart from bloodlust.
As for the aliens themselves, I’ll stay true to the secrecy of the ad campaign and not describe them to you. All leads to the discovery of the mother ship, for lack of a better word, and the inevitable journey into its core. What could have been an over-the-top display of preposterous gizmos is instead, thankfully, a modestly designed series of rooms and passageways that still manage to look otherworldly. To be sure, Cowboys & Aliens is, from start to finish, a monumentally ridiculous movie. The filmmakers seem to have realized this from the very start, and thusly took no extra steps to overcompensate. That’s fine, I guess, although I can’t help but wonder what would have happened if Favreau and his team actually had dug a little deeper. Even escapist entertainment is entitled to some degree of meaning.


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July 30, 2011
Good observations on the invasion as an allusion to the European settlers. In the source material, this was made very clear, as the aliens had more personality and was more ruthless with their lifestyle. I also liked the way you opened your review. I was worried that this would become terribly campy, but Favreau had the right amount of discipline and restraint to keep up the mood and tone. i liked this one, just had several missed opportunities; I may have liked it more if I didn't read the graphic novel first. Thanks for the sweet review!
July 31, 2011
Thanks for the comment. Favreau himself discussed the colonization references, and while I generally agree with him, the belief that the film hints at Manifest Destiny is misguided. I had some issues with the characters, especially Wilde's. Without giving anything away for those who might be reading this, far too much of her character was left unexplained. I was also weary of the relationship between Harrison Ford and the kid, simply because it seemed forced.
July 31, 2011
Yeah, in the source material, the boy was supposed to be an indian kid with no name and he found his name after he had helped in fighting off the invasion. There was also an Indian brave that helped a lot; but I guess he was replaced by Rockwell's character. Now the source material wasn't perfect, but there were inventive weapons and deaths. I liked the lead characters in the movie (Jake was better than Zeke) and Ford's character was a welcome change but overall, the graphic novel was a lot more fun and deeper with its execution.
August 01, 2011
I see. I guess it's no secret that I didn't read the graphic novel. I try to avoid them, simply because I don't want to get bogged down by making comparisons. That could be why I'm so open-minded when it comes to remakes.
August 01, 2011
Yeah, I think me reading the graphic novel had something to do with me not exactly enjoying this movie as much as I wanted to (though I liked it). It did however, help me fill in a few blanks in the film's screenplay.
More Cowboys & Aliens (2011 film) reviews
review by . July 29, 2011
posted in Movie Hype
An Uneven
An alien invasion happening during the late 1800’s when mankind had barely gotten in touch with their potentials for technology is an interesting premise. I mean it represented a classic “David vs. Goliath” theme as well as having a huge amount of potential to work on. Granted I wasn’t that impressed with Scott Mitchell Rosenberg’s “Cowboys and Aliens” (see review of the graphic novel here) but I thought it may make a good translation into film; seeing as …
review by . July 31, 2011
posted in Movie Hype
Screenwriters and Editing
Heres the two things I thought of as I watched this movie:      1.  The idea of gold hungry aliens has come a long way since Battlefield Earth and      2.  I can only imagine that when Harrison Ford signed on, the script was re-written to have him rescue his family.         oh, I guess a third would be that this is filling the void for Favereau instead of getting an Iron Man 3 from him.  I guess it could have been …
review by . August 02, 2011
posted in Movie Hype
I walked out of C&A today shrugging my shoulders.  It was a pleasant enough way to spend two hours on a hot summer night.  Daniel Craig (who looks like Harrison Ford used to look 30 years ago) and Harrison Ford (who looks remarkably like Neil Young today) play to type and off of each other well, and the setup is classic cowboy movie--so classic that when Craig, Ford, and the townspeople, native Americans, and Craig's old outlaw gang encounter the aliens (who lasso human subjects …
review by . July 28, 2011
posted in Movie Hype
'Cowboys & Aliens' 'Two Jews On Film' Fly In Different Directions With This SciFi Western (Video)
      The year is 1873. The place...New Mexico...A man (Daniel Craig) wakes up in the middle of nowhere.  He has no idea who he is or where he is.  All he knows is...there's a thick metal bracelet on his wrist and he can't remove it.       After fighting off some would-be robbers with a few swift kicks and punches, the Man wanders into the town of Absolution where he finds...   …
review by . July 28, 2011
posted in Movie Hype
Incredible concept! Incredible movie?
COWBOYS AND ALIENS   Written by Robert Orci, Alex Kurtzman, Damon Lindelof, Mark Fergus and Hawk Otsby   Directed by Jon Favreau   Starring Daniel Craig, Harrison Ford and Olivia Wilde       Jake Lonergan: I don’t want any trouble.       Aliens have tried to take over our planet dozens of times in the movies already. Every time they do, it seems like they always choose major metropolitan areas and the setting is …
review by . August 03, 2011
Walking into this movie you know what you are going to be getting, and if you don't it may be time to stop reading this blog. Jon Favreau promised his audience both cowboys and aliens and by god that is what you get, just not much else.      Favreau could have taken this movie in a couple different directions, he chose to take the mixing of two genres that have been lampooned in more recent history and decided to make it a serious action movie. Then there was the decision …
review by . August 02, 2011
Picture this… James Bonds wakes up in the Wild West unable to recall how he got there and then ends up in a town were Indiana Jones and his son have been terrorizing its citizens into doing anything they want…  Wait, that’s not right.  Granted Cowboys & Aliens does star Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford, as well as share executive producer Steven Spielberg (Indy franchise), there is little else these heavy hitters bring to this futuristic/sci-fi western.  If only …
Quick Tip by . December 22, 2011
A genre blend that starts off strong despite the adherence to a multitude of western cliches, it all falls flat in the second act with the introduction of a lazy plot twist created for no other reason than to save the screenwriters the trouble of advancing the story through dialogue and character development, and give them an easy out for a typically lame Hollywood Happy Ending.
review by . August 08, 2011
posted in Movie Hype
I’m generally a big fan of westerns, and I’ve been known to dabble in the science fiction genre from time to time. So on paper, Jon Favreau’s latest Cowboys and Aliens is a perfect fit. While I can definitely come to appreciate the general ridiculousness of it all and end up having a blast with it as the fun late summer film it is, the abundance of hands tweaking the script turns out being one of the movie’s biggest struggles. It’s not the best execution of a solid …
review by . August 08, 2011
posted in Movie Hype
No matter how you slice it, 2011 has not been a very fun-filled summer.  Most of the movies have either been very forgettable or they haven't really had much of an impact.  Cowboys and Aliens doesn't do much to change most of this.  It's certainly a lot more fun than most of the movies around this summer, but it doesn't quite leave the lasting impression you'd hope for it to.      We all understand that not every movie has to be this artistic …
About the reviewer
Chris Pandolfi ()
Growing up a shy kid in a quiet suburb of Los Angeles, Chris Pandolfi knows all about the imagination. Pretend games were always the most fun for him, especially on the school playground; he and his … more
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Cowboys & Aliens is an American fantasy- Western film starring Daniel Craig, Harrison Ford, and Olivia Wilde. The film, directed by Jon Favreau, is based on the 2006 graphic novel of the same name created by Scott Mitchell Rosenberg. Cowboys & Aliens was released in the United States and Canada on July 29, 2011 and in other countries on ensuing weekends.

1873. Arizona Territory. A stranger (Craig) with no memory of his past stumbles into the hard desert town of Absolution. The only hint to his history is a mysterious shackle that encircles one wrist. What he discovers is that the people of Absolution don’t welcome strangers, and nobody makes a move on its streets unless ordered to do so by the iron-fisted Colonel Dolarhyde (Ford). It’s a town that lives in fear.

But Absolution is about to experience fear it can scarcely comprehend as the desolate city is attacked by marauders from the sky. Screaming down with breathtaking velocity and blinding lights to abduct the helpless one by one, these monsters challenge everything the residents have ever known.

Now, the stranger they rejected is their only hope for salvation. As this gunslinger slowly starts to remember who he is and where he’s been, he realizes he holds a secret that could give the town a fighting chance against the alien force. With the help of the elusive traveler Ella, he pulls together a posse comprised of former opponents—townsfolk, Dolarhyde and his boys, outlaws and ...
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Director: Jon Favreau
Genre: Action, Adventure, Thriller, Western
Release Date: July 29, 2011
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Screen Writer: Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman
Runtime: 118 minutes
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