COWBOYS AND/OR ALIENS starts out great. Daniel Craig wakes up with an apparent gunshot wound and a weird metal device locked to his wrist. He doesn’t remember who he is or what the fuck happened. He does remember how to fight, though, so when some guys try to rob him he kicks their asses, steals their clothes TERMINATOR style and heads into town. (And all this without talking.)
Other than that metal thing it plays as a straight western for a while. Paul Dano is a crazy asshole who terrorizes the town, shooting his guns off and demeaning innocent people because his dad (Harrison Ford) is the cattle baron and he thinks he can get away with anything. But when he picks out Craig, a random bystander, to flip some shit at, he finds himself crashing nose-first against a wall of badass. This stranger doesn’t know who the little shit is and can’t pretend to be scared of him, so he knocks him on his ass. In the scuffle the kid accidentally shoots a deputy, a crime the sheriff can’t overlook despite who his daddy is, so they both get arrested, to be transferred to federal custody the next day.
Meanwhile Ford’s man Adam Beach goes back to report not only what happened but that this stranger looks like Jake Lonergan, the outlaw who stole the boss’s gold. So we have one of those classic western scenarios, like 3:10 TO YUMA, where a prisoner is being transported and other people are trying to intercept him. Except this is different because one of the interested parties is the titleistical aliens.
All the sudden lights appear in the sky and these UFOs buzz them, everybody in town sees it. Lonergan’s mysterious wrist weapon comes alive (must be weird for a citizen of the Old West to witness a beeping, flashing light) and he shoots down a UFO. That kinda surprised me because doesn’t he wonder if they’re on his side? He has that weapon, aren’t they trying to set him free?
Well, it doesn’t occur to him, because it doesn’t occur to the screenplay by Roberto Orci & Alex Kurtzman (TRANSFORMERSes) & Damon Lindelof (PROMETHEUS) and Mark Fergus & Hawk Ostby (CHILDREN OF MEN, IRON MAN) with screen story by Fergus & Ostby and Steve Oedekerk (THUMBTANIC), supposedly based on a graphic novel created by Scott Mitchell Rosenberg and written by Fred Van Lente and Andrew Foley. I think it’s just a coincidence that he was locked up and got set free during one of those alien attacks that happens when too many writers gather in one place.
These cowboys and cowladies don’t really have a frame of reference for aliens or spaceships, ’cause this is more than 20 years before War of the Worlds will be published, and even a little bit longer before COWBOYS & ALIENS executive producer Steven Spielberg would make a movie out of it. So some of them figure it’s demons. The coolest thing these guys do is not like an alien or a demon, more like the cowboys themselves: they shoot cables from their ships that lasso people and jerk them up into the sky. Remember, this was 1873 for the aliens also, so they hadn’t invented tractor beams yet. They can’t suck people up on a beam, they gotta rope ’em and drag ’em, which is much more exciting. I figure the merchandise must get damaged flopping around on the back of the ship like that, but they seem to know what they’re doing.
This is a really strong beginning, and there are other exciting parts (like Lonergan having to jump off a cliff onto one of the ships to rescue his girl, Olivia Wilde from TRON LEGACY). Unfortunately in the middle it kind of lindels off for a while. It turns out the Spaceyankers are taking people just for the usual reason, experiments. (I don’t know about you but I always look for the “no human testing” logo on any space products I import.) Lonergan’s secret backstory is not that exciting, he was just a guy that got abducted and they cut him open but before they could stick a space thermometer up his butt or whatever he stole that wrist thing and escaped but maybe got his head bonked or something and instead of making him think he’s a mafioso like when Fred Flinstone got his head bonked it just made him forget who he was. Also Wilde turns out to be an alien in boring human form, basically like the good alien cop in I COME IN PEACE, trying to stop these Spaceyankers.
The one revelation that people probly thought was dumb but that I personally thought was cool is that the aliens are after gold, just like a fuckin human. They’re Space Prospectors! I like it ’cause it’s a western thing. There really isn’t enough crossover between western tropes and alien invasion tropes going on here, so I appreciate this one. Also it creates the opportunity for a death-by-molten-gold. An O.G.
You might be worried since there’s not a VS. in the title that the cowboys mostly get along with the aliens and ride horses together or something. Don’t panic, they get to verse each other. There’s some cool stuff in there, and the creature effects are good, but it’s not as inspired about this matchup as, say, OUTLANDER with the Vikings & Aliens, or VALLEY OF GWANGI with the Cowboys & Dinosaurs, and there’s not any big surprises. This is actually the rare movie that I think could’ve benefited from the Weinstein treatment. I generally don’t like when people say this about movies, because you can’t just chop a half hour out and assume the story still works. But it at least seems to me like a 90 minute version could be stronger. It’s underwhelming, it doesn’t feel like it earns its 119, and I’m skeptical as to whether the 135 minute extended cut that I chose not to watch added any depth to it. But let me know if you think otherwise.
I mean, maybe in that longer cut they make you care about the characters. In this version they make a sincere attempt, I think, but other than the archetypical quiet stranger at the center none of them are all that compelling. Sam Rockwell’s character is weak enough that I haven’t mentioned him until now. Dano gets some good moments when he’s the terror of the town at the beginning, but he goes limp for most of the rest of it. I’d like to say Harrison Ford has his great Henry Fonda villain performance, but no dice. It’s kind of a halfway performance, he doesn’t really revel in playing the evil asshole like you’d hope he would, so when he turns nice at the end it doesn’t seem like that much of a transformation. I mean, it’s a nice thought. I wish it worked better for me.
The director is Jon Favreau, testing the waters of A-list director status thanks to his two IRON MAN pictures. (The results are inconclusive, leaning negative.) I remember at the time he said in interviews that he wanted to do it because you couldn’t get a straight western made anymore. TRUE GRIT was the year before and was a big hit, but I’ll give him that that was an anamoly. I still wonder if that’s really true, though. If he could get Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford to sign onto a straight ahead western and could keep the budget reasonable I bet he wouldn’t have too much trouble. And if not then hell, he’s a director with some momentum behind him, he’s also an actor and is friends with everybody, he has experience in independent filmmaking and connections in the big budget world. If he really wanted to make a western he could make it happen one way or another. So he should just admit that he liked the idea of cowboys and aliens. And I don’t blame him, it was a good idea. Just didn’t strike gold this time.
get it, gold
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.