COWBOYS & ALIENS. Science fiction western mush-up

I might be stretching it a bit trying to compare Cowboys & Aliens to the adventures of the famous archaeologist-adventurer…

Rafał Donica

15 February 2024

COWBOYS & ALIENS. Science fiction western mush-up

…, but I can’t shake the feeling that all it took was to give Harrison Ford a different hat, a whip in his hand, and flesh out his character a bit more to enjoy another installment of Indiana Jones’ retirement adventures.

Meanwhile, two-thirds of the screen time is dominated by the quite decent acting and still handsomely built Daniel Craig, who in the battle for the lead role pushes Ford into the background. By introducing two distinctive protagonists on the screen, unfortunately, the screenplay and depth of characters suffer because the screenwriter, having interestingly crafted characters with somewhat unclear pasts at his disposal, ultimately doesn’t give proper attention to either of them. To paraphrase a well-known saying from the Wild West: “This screenplay is too small for the both of them.” The other actors playing in Cowboys & Aliens serve as background, never sticking their noses out of the crowd even for a moment. Do you remember Paul Dano from There Will Be Blood and Sam Rockwell from Moon? You won’t remember them from Jon Favreau‘s film.

The director of the excellent Iron Man and its quite successful sequel can count a small misstep in his filmography with this one.

Cowboys & Aliens Daniel Craig Harrison Ford Olivia Wilde

Cowboys & Aliens fails to evoke emotions. Although the characters are ambiguous, nothing comes of it, no drama unfolds; Jake Lonergan (Craig) was once bad, and now from the beginning of the film, he’s good and remains so until the end. Similarly, the bad-good Woodrow Dolarhyde (Ford) – terrorizing the area and covering up for his son, the eternal troublemaker, also turns out to be good, as it eventually turns out. When conflicts between Dolarhyde and Lonergan are hinted at, it turns out that there’s nothing of the sort because both get along well from the beginning to the end of the screen events. The lack of sparks between the characters undermines the entire film from the start because what is there to get excited about and what to wait for when the main ingredients of a good screenplay are missing: conflict, the hero’s inner journey, the motif of transformation.

Cowboys & Aliens Daniel Craig

To best describe the emotions I enjoy in cinema and those lacking in Favreau’s film, I’ll use an example from Ron Howard’s Backdraft. Remember the final fire and those seconds, with the explosion and fire in the background, heralding an axe duel between Russell and Glenn (which ultimately didn’t happen)? Or when the wounded Kurt Russell, watching William Baldwin battling the flames, screamed with all his might, “That’s my brother god damn it!” – scenes as straightforward as they come and hitting on obvious strings, but even now, as I described them, I got that cool shiver accompanying excellently written relationships between characters, exploding in the finale. And that’s exactly the kind of bomb I missed in Cowboys & Aliens, although both the idea of a western set in a science fiction framework and the initial character sketches offered a chance for an emotional explosion.

Cowboys & Aliens Olivia Wilde

So what does Favreau offer?

He offers the fight between the titular cowboys and the titular aliens, but even that, though littered with top-notch effects, is not enough to compensate for the weakness of the screenplay and engage the audience in the whirlwind of events. The aliens attack en masse, but fighting them consists of endlessly repeated “aim-fire” with no surprises, interesting solutions, or innovative staging ideas. Do you remember the shootouts from District 9? There, almost every shot featured unusual motifs causing jaws to drop – the alien ship towering monumentally over the city, the camera mounted on the rifle, the Mech gathering fired bullets and smashing black weapons dealers, a pig as a weapon, a speeding car knocking down the Mech, etc., etc. In Cowboys & Aliens, there’s no action worth mentioning, no surprises. The only thing that somewhat holds up is the prologue, the scene of the horse chase from flying vehicles, Lonergan’s jump from a galloping horse to a flying vehicle, and the final (literal) blasting off into space of the alien ship. However, that’s definitely not enough for an almost two-hour film.

Cowboys & Aliens Daniel Craig

The film also fails to capitalize on the comedic potential of the whole story. Instead of funny scenes based on the collision of the Wild West with space technology, Favreau gives us a motif with matches (needed to ignite the fuse) dropped on the ground after a long climb to the alien ship. Ha, ha. Oh no, sorry, I remembered, there’s the extremely funny resurrection scene, or rather the fire-standing-up scene, of Ella Swenson (Olivia Wilde). The bodies are thrown into the fire, burn for a moment, then Ella rises, walks out of the fire without even dusting herself off and explains to Daniel Craig that she came from another world blah blah blah… and from that moment on, the film goes downhill, all the way to a disappointing, boring, and schematic ending.

Cowboys & Aliens Daniel Craig Harrison

As for the aliens and their invasion of our planet, I found it somewhat odd that there was no… astonishment from the Wild West residents, who instead of wetting their pants at the sight of flying vehicles, and later at least exchanging a couple of words about it, just leave this unusual event without any comment. They just get on their horses and ride off to rescue their kidnapped loved ones, as if they were abducted by an Indian from around the corner, not by something completely incomprehensible. Nowadays, sure, the sight of a UFO might not scare us too much because we’re surrounded by modern technology, but people from 1873, for whom the pinnacle of technology was a revolver and a wheel on a wagon, should at least freak out at the sight of flying vehicles and eat their hats.

The fictional Cowboys & Aliens didn’t encourage me to reach for the comic book original. The film isn’t perhaps a disaster, it’s watchable (although I don’t feel like watching it again), but it certainly disappoints and doesn’t meet the expectations I had for Favreau after he made the brilliantly made Iron Man movies.

Rafał Donica

Rafał Donica

Since watching "Blade Runner", he has been passionate about cinema, loves "Akira", "Drive", "Escape from New York", "North by Northwest", the underrated "The Hateful Eight" and "Terrifier 2". Author of the book "Frankenstein 100 years in cinema". Founder and editor-in-chief (in the years 1999 - 2012) of the Polish film portal FILM.ORG.PL. Since 2016, a professional reportage photographer.

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