Screen Rant’s Ben Kendrick reviews Cowboys & Aliens

After the success of the Iron Man franchise, even with a less than stellar critical response to Iron Man 2, director Jon Favreau has become a fan-favorite filmmaker among both casual and die-hard moviegoers. As a result, it’s no surprise that his genre mash-up film, Cowboys & Aliens, enjoyed a lot of pre-release buzz – due also in part to the film’s bizarre premise.

But is that Cowboys & Aliens premise a boon or a bane for the film? Successfully marrying a dusty western film with a slick sci-fi action-adventure is a daunting task. Has Favreau succeeded in creating, not just a competent nod to both genres, but an enjoyable and cohesive film experience?

The answer is yes and no. There are a number of problems in Cowboys & Aliens that muddle the mash-up: dull moments, awkward pacing, and flat emotions. Most notably, the film fails to deliver a successful blend of cowboys and aliens – as the two worlds rarely come together with real cohesion. However, the shortfalls aren’t enough to hold the film back entirely – it’s still pretty entertaining.

In case you’re unfamiliar with the basic Cowboys & Aliens premise, Jack Lonergan (Daniel Craig) wakes up in the desert with no memory of who he is or what he’s doing there. Upon arriving in a nearby town, Lonergan quickly gets into an altercation with local brat Percy Dolarhyde, son of notorious cattle-rancher Woodrow Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford). As a result of the skirmish, it’s not long before the townspeople recognize Lonergan on a “Wanted” poster – and call for his arrest. When Lonergan is subdued by the local sheriff (with much difficulty), he meets Ella Swenson (Olivia Wilde) who takes an interest in the cowboy and requests his help. Before Lonergan can concern himself with an escape plan, aliens swoop in and steal a number of key members of the community, and the rescue mission lands on the shoulders of Dolarhyde, Swenson, and subsequently Lonergan – who hopes that tracking the aliens to their base will give him answers to his past.

The success of the film is largely due to a great performance from Daniel Craig – who leads the cast with the same subtle intensity that made him a stand-out in his other films (such as Layer Cake and the Bond films). Craig’s performance as Lonergan is a great mix of charming western swagger and modern physicality – convincing in both rough and tumble action choreography as well as quiet contemplation while rolling a cigarette.

Daniel Craig in 'Cowboys & Aliens'

Sadly, the same cannot be said for the majority of the supporting cast. Considering the fact that the film sports an incredible ensemble of performers – most characters are underserved. It’s hard to know exactly where to place the blame – either due to wooden performances with stilted dialogue or characters that are too thinly drawn and border on caricature. Some of the characters, especially Ford’s Dollarhyde, Sam Rockwell’s Doc, and Wilde’s Swenson, all get scenes where they shine a bit, but in general even these moments are largely predictable – and fall short of making the characters memorable in the long run. All of the players serve a purpose in the Cowboys & Aliens story – but, outside of their role in the larger events, there’s very little to them (at least onscreen).

The pacing is especially erratic. On a couple of occasions, the narrative builds-up to a tense and potentially exciting set-piece – only to take a ten minute detour. Even worse, a number of characters are stripped of potentially revealing moments because the camera cuts-away to move the story forward. As an example, the end of the first act is punctuated by a horrific abduction scene – where loved ones (men, women, and children) are plucked from the Earth by aerial spacecraft, but aside from general fear and confusion, the survivors seem mostly unaffected. Only Rockwell’s Doc sheds a tear for his missing wife and the scene isn’t given any weight – since the camera quickly abandons the character in favor of getting the sci-fi mystery rolling.

It’s a real shame – since the sci-fi mystery, as well as the larger sci-fi world-building, aren’t particularly interesting. The motivations of the aliens (both their purpose on Earth as well as their reason for abducting humans) are underwhelming – not to mention that they give rise to a number of plot holes. It’s as if each element of the film, characters included, is a slave to the attractive western/sci-fi premise. Unfortunately, instead of a carefully concocted blend (of the most fitting genre elements), Cowboys & Aliens is just a salad bowl of ideas that bump into one another – but never come across as truly connected in the same space.

The Sci-fi and Western Genres Collide in 'Cowboys & Aliens'

That said, despite flat characters and a campy premise – moment to moment the film definitely offers some exciting set-pieces, enjoyable character banter, and bizarre but intriguing visual spectacle. Seeing the cowboy and alien worlds collide on the battlefield is interesting and forces the characters to come up with some intriguing solutions for dispatching their would-be conquerors – especially when the full extent of the aliens’ reach is revealed.

In the end, there’s no doubt that audiences will enjoy the Cowboys & Aliens experience – since it mostly delivers on its promise of an exciting genre mash-up. It’s just a shame that a film with such a talented cast as well as a revered team of writers (Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman, and Damon Lindelof) couldn’t weave a stronger and more fulfilling overarching story (with room for meaningful character moments) into the mix. In a summer full of brainless action films with poor character development and awkward pacing, Cowboys & Aliens certainly isn’t the worst offender (Green Lantern) but it’s not the most exciting either (Transformers: Dark of the Moon).

If you’re still on the fence about Cowboys & Aliens, check out the trailer below:

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If you’ve already seen the film and want to talk about various plot details without ruining it for others, head over to our Cowboys & Aliens spoilers discussion.

Follow me on Twitter @benkendrick – and let us know what you thought of the film below.

Cowboys & Aliens is now playing in theaters.

Our Rating:


3 out of 5
(Good)