‘Cowboys & Aliens’ Review

Published 4 years ago by , Updated August 8th, 2011 at 1:34 pm,

Cowboys and Aliens Review e1311720347143 Cowboys & Aliens Review

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.

Cowboys and Aliens Daniel Craig Cowboys & Aliens Review

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.

Cowboys and Aliens Battle Cowboys & Aliens Review

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

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  1. LOL! Orci and Kurtzman are revered? After destroying Star Trek and Transformers?

    • They didn’t destroy Star Trek, they resurrected it.


      • Agree with Vic. The new Star Trek made me into a Trekkie. I now watch all the movies and tv series religiously thanks to Orci, Kurtzman, and Abrams

      • I was a fan before Orci and Kurtzman were even born. That said, I loved the new take on an old favorite.

        And I plan to see Cowboys and Aliens soon. Regardless of the review, it looks like a lot of fun!

    • The general consensus among film fans is that they saved Trek. Transformers…well that’s debatable…there were moments I enjoyed in the 2 TF films they wrote.

    • Why focus on such a trivial point of the review? They’re considered important writers for many reasons, including what they brought to the table for both Star Trek and Transformers. They even brought us quality TV in Fringe. I think the thesis statement works.

    • Don’t worry somewhere down the line someone will reboot Trek yet again and re-add the boring dialogue, intergalactic diplomacy, and scenes of aliens sitting around tables.

      In the meantime there are these good Star Trek films that you should give a chance.

    • Agree! Agree! Agree! Orci and Kurtzman are very talented writers.

  2. Yeah, I’m not sure why the writers of Transformers 1 and 2 would be considered “revered.” Maybe by studio execs who like big box office numbers, but surely not by critics.

    Those guys are hacks, plain and simple.

    • TF2 was the bad film of the two…and even really great writers have some bad projects. Orci & Kurtzman have done some great stuff, and are true geeks.

      • IMO 1 was incredibly bad as well.

        • FYI, a lot of what made the first two Transformers movies worse (script/dialog) came from Bay, not Orci/Kurtzman.


  3. Ack!, PLEASE stop needlessly attacking Green Lantern! It’s like the film mortally wounded your inner child or something.

    • Yeah guys… give GL a break: it really wasn’t as bad as some of make it out to be.

      • Mongoose and TheAvenger are correct in this matter. ;)

    • GL needs to be insulted more than it has. Green Lantern could of been the greatest comic film yet, but they made more mistakes than i can count and ruined the chances of us ever getting a good incarnation for years to come.

    • …well…

  4. “the same subtle intensity that made him a stand-out in his other films”

    By that I mean the permanent confused scowl he wears in every single film he’s ever been in.

    • I actually like Craig. I get Bond fans hating him because he wasn’t the type of Bond he is used to, but IMO he is a terrific actor and his Bond films are the only Bond films I’ve liked and he is the main reason.

      • Don’t get me wrong, I’m a fan of his films, and he’s a good actor. He’s just not James Bond.

        • Yea Like I said I understand. I’m not a fan of James bond how he was at all so I liked him in the role. I never enjoyed a Bond film until those. In fact it was reading hardcore Bond fans trash the movies because it wasn’t the Bond they loved that made me actually watch them lol.

          For me Bond films had always been to shallow. They just felt empty to me like there was nothing to them. It was witty dialogue and decent action, but nothing underneath. I saw a little more depth in the Craig films though it seemed to sacrifice the wit for it.

        • I agree he’s more Bourne than Bond

        • DSM,

          I agree, Craig isn’t Bond to me – too much of a brute in the role. But he made an AWESOME “man with no name” in this film.


          • Yeah. I don’t necessarily think Craig was the best choice for Bond, but he did make a very convincing cowboy in this movie.

            I wonder how different the final product would have been if Robert Downey, Jr had stayed in the Jake Lonegren role…

  5. First out of the chute I will blame Lindelof. He couldnt write himself out of Lost why would anything else be any different? (yes I know he wasnt the only one but its his fault :) )


    3 for just it being entertaining? Is that because you cant give it 2.5? I find porn entertaining yet if the story and characters are weak with a lot of plot holes it doesnt/wont get a 3…. ;)

    If all you say is true with regards to characters and the such you would think that would take away from the overall value of the film unless the wow factor was that great to overcome the other deficiencies.

    As I read your review I got the impression it would be rated lower then a 3.

    • Aknot I think there is a major difference between finding porn entertaining and finding a movie entertaining.

      I would say a 3 is acceptable for finding the film entertaining. Usually giving a film 2.5 would mean you didn’t enjoy it really at all. That is after all a 50%.

      Also lets be honest if you find a movie entertaining you wills it back and watch 2 hours and enjoy it.

      If you find Porn entertaining You’ll watch it until you finish what ever task you are working on. Unless you actually sit there and watch Porn movies from beginning to end for the story if that’s the case I’m sorry for you.

      Finding a Porn film entertaining is also the same entertainment you can get from closing your eyes and imagining.

      Finding a big summer block buster entertaining requires you to sit and watch the film.

      • Yup however (IMO) it can be entertaining to the degree that you like to watch what you are watching. Aliens, Cowboys, fights etc. but the movie as a whole is being reviewed not just the entertaining parts.

        A 3 (again IMO) is something that is not better but not worse then middle of the road. Meaning it worked with what you had.

        Apparently the only thing that worked (in reading the review) was a few things. As Ben stated you would ahve thought with what you had, writers, actors, directors, decent premise/known property, it would/should have been better.

        When you have all of the stuff that should make it at least a 4 movie and it doesnt something is majorly wrong.

        “some exciting set-pieces, enjoyable character banter, and bizarre but intriguing visual spectacle.” That is it.

        To me a movie with only that going for it should not be a 3. Especially when you have actors like Ford and Rockwell which get regulated to a “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.”

        Dont get me wrong I like summer popcorn flicks but I think this was supposed to be something more than a garden variety popcorn flick. Not a Gone with the Wind thing but an intelligent/cogzinant look at a decent comic property.

        The porn reference was spot on. If it is visually enjoyable which it should be fine but if you are going to critique the complete package you cant just base it off the money shot/stars/hotness of the chicks. That was the point I was trying to put across.

        • Aknot

          Guess we will agree to disagree.

          To me 2.5 mean it’s a bad film that tries to be good, but really isn’t very enjoyable in any memorable way.

          3 is a film that tried to be good but winds up just being enjoyable. It had a couple of good moments of brillaince, but they were surrounded by lack luster let downs.

          3.5 is a pretty good movie that probably won’t be remember all that fondly 10 years from now, but is still good in it’s own right and it’s money rightfully spent.

          I would never rate a film I enjoyed as a 2.5 because to me 2.5 means it’s not enjoyable. So if he enjoyed it and fond it fun to me 3 really is the only option so I say no foul.

          Still hate when arguments like this pop up, because typically before the day is over we can expect Vic to show up and tell us how the rating system is terrible and he wants to kill it. Lol I cringe every time someone complains about the number because it makes me feel Vic is closer to removing it and the moment that happens it the moment I won’t even bother reading a review here anymore. Scores are useful reference points to me.

          • meh why should we break tradition. ;)

            I just didnt take his review as being middle of the ground.

            As for the rating scheme I would hate to see you leave over that. I kind of like what they do with the DVD/Blurays. They give reason why you should rent or buy it.

            Maybe a rating then a pros & cons as to why to see or not see it. So if there are those that want to see it for Craig and the Special effects we can or if there are to many cons like wooden acting and plot holes we wont. This would also gel with the reviewers viewpoint.

            • I don’t know I have not read the DVD Blu ray thing in ages. I have another site I go to for what is coming out and when. It will tell me what comes out in October and in what week right now. Also typically by the time something comes out on DVD or Blu ray I already know if I want it or not. I watch most films that I have any interest in at all before they come out on DVD usually.

        • Aknot,

          I agree with the score. It wasn’t a great “film” but I did find it entertaining enough. Daniel Craig was excellent and there were many “crowd-pleaser” moments in the film that made it still worth seeing.

          Again, this points to why I often question even HAVING a number score on reviews…


          • Sorry was out in the woods for a week…

            Number scores are fine as long as the system is defined and a reason for deviating from it is explained.

            Why it is a 3 instead of a 2. I mean some movies are supposed to be popcorn flicks while others are mind provoking thrillers. If a popcorn flick tries to provoke thought and fails it still can be a 3 (or better) as it excels at a popcorn flick.

            Even a what the reviewer liked compared to what they did not like will/can justify the point system.

            In reading this review it just appears there was more bad then good if you add it up and the good wasnt that good to make it middle of the road.

            Least that is how I read the review. Points are ok however as stated earlier I like the reviewer to also give a reason why I should see it and why not to see it.

    • Aknot & Daniel F –

      I think you both make good points. For me, it was really just that I felt like Cowboys & Aliens was an above-average action adventure film (but only by a slim margin). I scored it above a 2.5 because, for me, 2.5 is the borderline between maybe recommend or maybe stay away. In general, I would cautiously recommend Cowboys & Aliens – but, as mentioned in the review, it’s not a super competent film and will disappoint some.

  6. This is very heart breaking.

    This was my most anticipated big budget film of the year. I really had high hopes. I thought this could end up being not just the best summer flick but the best film of the year possibly. It had all the potential in the world.

    I still plan to see it, but while I don’t usually agree with the more recent SR reviews I do typically agree with the general review consensus of Rotten Tomatoes and Out look for this film is not so good with it currently being rotten.

    I may come out of it liking it, but there is no possible chance it will be as good as I had hoped it would be now. Looks like Thor will be the best block buster this year for me.

    So far though I’m giving best film to Adjustment bureau. Hopefully something better will come out before the year is up.

  7. One question this may bring up is that maybe Jon F isn’t quite as good as most people thought he was? I’ve always thought he was a bit overrated. He really only has one good film under his belt IMO and that’s iron Man. Elf was nothing but dumb humor and unintelligent …. well everything. While Iron Man was a massive let down. Now once again Jon doesn’t live up to the hype? If Cowboys and Aliens doesn’t do to well at the box office I think maybe we can expect to see his popularity plummet with studios and he may not be so sought out.

    • The same could be said for the writing team since the only thing of value they have produced so far is Star trek. The Transformers films are horrilbe piles of trash. Even the fans of it can admit it’s brainless special effects. So maybe Cowboys and Aliens was the big time team up of one hit wonders? Their films may be financially successful, but none of they above have been able to produce more than one intelligent good film.

      • DF,

        What I dont understand is why so many writers etc. I see 8. That is 8 people (screenplays and writing chores) that have to get on the same page to make a cohesive story.

        Not to mention anyone else that may have input but not great enough to warrant a credit.

        I see 4 for Ironman and 8 for this movie… Thor had 6 as did XM:FC. Captain America had 2.

        Im thinking the magic number is 4/5…. :D

        • I agree, Aknot.

          Reminds me of a class project I had where each student around the table gets the story written so far and add something else to it. The final script usually turns out to be something ridiculously amusing, never cohesive.

          Hollywood needs to cut that out. It seems to me, they can’t let go of a writer’s ideas, they tell another writer to re-write the story and keep the ideas they like.

          And in the end, it makes for more shoddy movies than not, I think. There is something to be said about a single writer’s vision.

        • I think the magic Number is one. One writer to me seems to more often than not produce the best work. Very few Oscar caliber films have 4 writers.

          • Think about J. Michael Straczynski and Babylon 5. He wrote the majority of that series, and it was one of the best I’ve ever seen. Competent, singular writers can create treasures, but 8??? How does anyone’s ideas make it into the film?

            As for Star Trek, I can honestly say that Vic is right about resurrecting it, but I can’t get around the giant story holes (see black hole and 25 year gap after the Kelvin). Please, for the love of film goers everywhere, do not give us Wrath of Khan Part II!

            Transformers was nice to look at, but Orci/Kurtzman missed the entire point of what audiences wanted to see – robots killing robots! Sure, it’s nice to Megan Fox leaning over a bike, but where does that get us in the story?

            Finally, if you know Jon Favreau’s work, you will know he made two good movies: Iron Man and Swingers. It’s funny watching him talk about Elf on Dinner for Five, because he doesn’t seem to have enjoyed that process too much.

            As for Bond, Craig IS Bond. He is pre-Sean Connery version, and was exactly what the franchise needed. Yes, he’s more Bourne in his attitude than Bond, but that’s ok, because that’s what we needed him to be. Now, if they can just weave the final movie in with Dr. No…

  8. “On a couple of occasions, the narrative builds-up to a tense and potentially exciting set-piece — only to take a ten minute detour.”

    I hate that.

    I guess this will be a rental for me, then. Too bad…

  9. Samurai’s & Aliens.

  10. I’m hoping this can be as entertaining as Independence Day. I love watching that movie even though it’s mainly a dumb action movie.

    • Yeah Independence Day is actually a good comparison. I went to see Cowboys and Aliens today and I found it to be very entertaining. Vic is right. It’s not a GREAT movie but it was good old fashioned summer fun. Craig was an excellent “man with no name.” I’m surprised the Rotten Tomatoes score is so low.

  11. just came bak from cinema thought this was entertaining

  12. Anyone who thinks Transformers: Dark of the Moon is better than Cowboys and aliens is simply mad.

    • As stated at the end of the review – the Green Lantern/Dark of the Moon comparison was only with regard to excitement. They’re all mostly hollow action-films but Transformers had significantly more exciting (and better) action than Cowboys & Aliens. Obviously Cowboys & Aliens did certain things better than Bay’s film. But if I’m going to sit in the theater and endure poor pacing and underdeveloped characters – I’d much rather see the last 60 minutes of Dark of the Moon again.

      Subjective opinion of course. Then again, maybe I’m just simply mad.

  13. This is the last “big” blockbuster film this summer so I’ll probably end up seeing it eventually. Plus Harrison Ford is one of my favorite actors but he hasnt been doing well in the last decade except for Morning Glory and Crystal Skull (which I didnt mind) so hopefully this will be a good performance from him.

  14. I have an idea for a movie. Cowboys and Trekkies. Beam me up John Wanye…lmao :D

  15. THE FLICK…is fun and entertaining. That is all it has to be. :

  16. The movie was great Craig,Wilde and Harrison For were awesome. I love a good cowboy movie. Jon Favreu is a great Director.

  17. Just came from the movie and I have to agree with this review. It was enjoyable but the reason the aliens were there was kind of dumb. And I definitely got a Skyline kind of feel while watching C&A. 3/5 for me.

    • Skyline… ugh. Was there a plot ANYWHERE in the movie?!?!?

  18. I liked it wasnt the best movie ever but was money well spent.

  19. Went and saw it this morning. Forgot about it immediatly after I left the theater. It was entertaining for a couple hours and then I just didnt care.

  20. The new Star Trek film is good, all the Transformers films are good, Michael Bay is a good director and cowboys and aliens looks bloody brilliant.

    • He’s a good director who had nothing to do with this film, I’m pretty sure.

  21. Finally something a truly original movie and it took a comic book story to come up with it. This was a risky venture but it looks like Western Sci-Fi’s are carving out a loyal audience with Spielberg at the helm.

    Platinum Studios was relatively unknown in the movie business but after this weekend all that will all change. Platinum sold the rights for C&A to Universal and Dream Works for next to nothing but retained merchandising and sequel options, genius in my opinion. Blockbusters are hard to come by and with the commercial success of this weekend’s effort; C&A II won’t be far behind. Box Office receipts, video games, action figures, tee-shirts, and anything you can put the trademark on are selling like hotcakes.

    Everything Spielberg touches turns to gold and it looks like this is just the beginning for Cowboys and Aliens. Platinum Studios has an extensive library and is quickly moving up the Hollywood food chain but I’m not so sure we’ll see a second effort from this relatively unknown.

    The success of this Cowboys and Aliens may just be Platinum’s undoing as I predict a name change in the very near future. Disney bought Marvel in 2009 for $4 Billion and Time Warner took control DC Comics the very same year. I’m betting that Dream Works and Universal has Platinum Studio’s in their sites and will pull the trigger before anymore aliens invade the old west and they have to add too many more zeros to the check.

  22. awe·some [aw-suhm]


    1. inspiring awe: an awesome sight.
    2. showing or characterized by awe.
    3. Slang . very impressive: That Cowboys and Aliens is totally awesome.

  23. well, i zink the aliens luks laik bag full of mojitos, yu nou gue am sai, is verry impredictbul an very dificul chu, em a raight? an the cowbois ar very nasti, siyu leirer

    • Normally I can decrypt what people are saying, but not in this instance.

      • lol

  24. Acting is good. But characters and aliens aren’t as developed. Favreau doesn’t have the same visual eye as Spielberg with jurassic Park or Michael Bay with Transformers when it comes to action : No kick ass eye popping action scenes , the film is very predictable, no real suspense. I’m surprised that Spielberg didn’t have a say in the action sequences? The movie reminded me of Skyline as well, but the grounded version.
    I would compare that movie to the 13th Warrior which didn’t have any Aliens but was more Epic.

  25. 163 million dollars to produce this movie was way to much.. the paltry opening of 36.2 million does not justify the budget.

  26. Is it worth paying $12 for this film ?

    • Try paying $17.50….

      • i`ll check it out in 3D

  27. I paid 6.25$, first matinee. The theatre was full, we had a good time with a few scenes even warranting some applause/cheering. It was not Shakespeare but a fun popcorn movie with two genres I like. It was much better than that rehash Transformers 3.

    • This movie is GREAT. Anybody who hates this movie has probably only seen the Theatrical version and not the EXTENDED version.
      The only reason the movie suffered was because of (1) weak marketing campaign, and (2) Favreau made the mistake of cutting the movie just for the sake of being a quick/rushed action movie. The EXTENDED version provides character interaction which helps you understand why characters make their decisions, and you get to see background behaviors which immerse you into the Western setting of the movie. PLUS, there’s a few new violent Alien moments. If the EXTENDED version had been released in cinemas in the first place, not only would this movie’s RT rating be in the 50s or even 60s, but it also would’ve been appreciated as a faithful Western movie that happens to deal with Aliens.
      BUY THE BLU-RAY, the EXTENDED version is awesome.