“Cowboys & Aliens,” the genre mash-up from director Jon Favreau, is a curiosity in that it has so much going for it–great actors, a crazy set-up, action, aliens, fights, blood, Daniel Craig‘s abs–but still manages to fail completely.

The movie starts out in promising form, with Craig’s amnesiac Man With No Name waking up in the desert, shoeless, with a weird metal contraption attached to his wrist.

He’s soon surrounded by outlaws that he easily overcomes before making his way to the western town of Absolution. Here he is greeted by the town’s population of cliches, such as the wimpy saloon owner (Sam Rockwell), the sensible sheriff, (Keith Carradine), a pistol-packing lass, (Olivia Wilde), and the spoiled, drunken son (Paul Dano) of a ruthless rancher, (Harrison Ford).

Turns out the Man With No Name has a name–Jake Lonergan–and a Wanted poster. But before the sheriff can collect a bounty, the town is attacked by low flying saucers that shoot up buildings and kidnap their kin; Lonergan quickly learns what that metal wristband is good for.

From this point on, the movie starts to plod, with the townsfolk teaming up with Longergan to defeat the “demons” and get back their kinfolk. Last year, after seeing the Coen brothers’ “True Grit,” alongside the John Wayne original, I came to the realization that my longstanding self-proclaimed hatred of westerns was, in fact, a lie. I don’t hate westerns; I hate bad westerns. And, unfortunately, the western half of “Cowboys & Aliens” is a bad western.

Sadly, the sci-fi half isn’t any better. The aliens the cowboys fight are only memorable in that they have an incredibly bad design flaw: a pair of extra arms that are, essentially, lung-arms, which means whenever said arms are extended, the alien’s inner workings are made vulnerable. Other than that, they’re generically boring and maddeningly inconsistent. Sometimes guns can take them down, and sometimes bullets just bounce off of them.

As the band of cowboys (and one mysterious cowgirl) make their way to the alien lair, they are attacked by, and eventually align with, an Apache tribe, who have also lost some of their own to the aliens’ lassos. Thus the movie becomes “Cowboys & Indians Vs. Aliens.”

There is some attempt at historical commentary here, with the aliens’ invasion and quest for gold (yes, gold) mirroring America’s “manifest destiny” and slaughter of the natives, but that kind of heady thinking is cast aside pretty quickly, in favor of several shoot-outs, and the inevitable, “I need to get to the heart of the alien craft, where the inevitable weakness is, to set off the bomb!” set-up. It took eight writers to come up with that?

Daniel Craig is his usual bad-ass self, all sinewy muscle and piercing blue eyes, and I appreciate his not going overboard with an accent. (In fact most of the cast stays away from that, and it was kind of refreshing not hearing the usual heavy fake southern accents that tend to populate all westerns.) But a little too much burden is placed on Craig’s shoulders to carry the movie, and I don’t think he entirely succeeds.

Which brings me to the bigger star in this movie: Harrison Ford. His character is supposed to be a mean, ruthless, sonofabitch, but aside from a few early minutes of torturous interrogation of a ranch hand, he’s anything but, and comes across as more of a cranky old man than a man to be feared.

After seeing this and last year’s “Morning Glory,” in which he played a cranky old newscaster–badly–I’m beginning to wonder if Harrison Ford was ever actually a good actor. Don’t get me wrong: I loved him as much as the next Gen X’er did in their youth. But perhaps he really, really, benefited from being in some great movies. Place him in a mediocre movie, and there’s nothing he can really do to save it, and this one is no exception.

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the author

Rain Jokinen watches a lot of television and movies and then writes things about them on the Internet. She's a San Francisco native, and yeah, she'll rub that fact in your face any chance she gets.

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  • SebastianMichaelis

    It’s been done before.

    “Oblivion” and “Oblivion II: Back Lash” were released by Full Moon Entertainment back in the late 80s and early 90s. They were low budget on the special effects, and admittedly the acting was campy and far from perfect. But they were a lot of fun to watch because they never made the mistake of taking themselves too seriously.

    And featuring Julie Newmar as Miss Kitty, the feisty saloon owner… priceless!

  • SebastianMichaelis

    It’s been done before.

    “Oblivion” and “Oblivion II: Back Lash” were released by Full Moon Entertainment back in the late 80s and early 90s. They were low budget on the special effects, and admittedly the acting was campy and far from perfect. But they were a lot of fun to watch because they never made the mistake of taking themselves too seriously.

    And featuring Julie Newmar as Miss Kitty, the feisty saloon owner… priceless!

  • sidjtd

    You’re being extremely critical toward a movie titled Cowboys and Aliens. That is pretty silly. I thought the movie was fine, and it did exactly what it intended to do. I find throughout your whole article a tone of cynical dissaproval like a snooty art school student that shouldnt be reviewing HOLLYWOOD action flicks if you think youre better than the writers.

    So 1 or 2 aliens died of dramatic effect at the right time. Considering the humans barely took down 2 or 3 in the whole movie with conventional guns (not including dynamite and lucky knife stabbing into the organ scene) and seemed to fight against over 20, I’d say a few lucky bullets flying through eye sockets, seams of their tough shell body, or maybe even multiple bullets in a similar area and different gauge guns helped take down those 2-3 aliens. But I suppose gauge differences doesn’t really cross your mind being from the bay area of Cali. Im not a gun toting righty, by the way.

    Lastly you say Harrison Ford wasnt the tough guy but a cranky old man. Why wouldn’t he be cranky. His son sucks in the movie and he honestly had nothing going for him and his neck of the woods. He seemed pisses off and tired and old. He’s not Liam Neeson in Taken who doesn’t have to worry about water Or basic housing unlike washed up character Harrison Ford plays. So what’s wrong with that.

    The movie could have had a craig sex scene. They didnt. Thank god. They could have had the aliens come for some mysterious property to make it more scifi, or abduct people for science. They kept it simple. Some convoluted complicated reason. They could have said screw Indians. Make it a white only movie. But they included everyone together against a common cause

    Classic idea, but better than just portraying natives fighting seperately and more helplessly than their Caucasians + 1 mexican + adopted native counterpart

    It’s just a movie. The movie isn’t deep or even trying to be deep. Don’t judge a movie made and designed as a pond because it’s not like an ocean. It’s not going for that

  • sidjtd

    You’re being extremely critical toward a movie titled Cowboys and Aliens. That is pretty silly. I thought the movie was fine, and it did exactly what it intended to do. I find throughout your whole article a tone of cynical dissaproval like a snooty art school student that shouldnt be reviewing HOLLYWOOD action flicks if you think youre better than the writers.

    So 1 or 2 aliens died of dramatic effect at the right time. Considering the humans barely took down 2 or 3 in the whole movie with conventional guns (not including dynamite and lucky knife stabbing into the organ scene) and seemed to fight against over 20, I’d say a few lucky bullets flying through eye sockets, seams of their tough shell body, or maybe even multiple bullets in a similar area and different gauge guns helped take down those 2-3 aliens. But I suppose gauge differences doesn’t really cross your mind being from the bay area of Cali. Im not a gun toting righty, by the way.

    Lastly you say Harrison Ford wasnt the tough guy but a cranky old man. Why wouldn’t he be cranky. His son sucks in the movie and he honestly had nothing going for him and his neck of the woods. He seemed pisses off and tired and old. He’s not Liam Neeson in Taken who doesn’t have to worry about water Or basic housing unlike washed up character Harrison Ford plays. So what’s wrong with that.

    The movie could have had a craig sex scene. They didnt. Thank god. They could have had the aliens come for some mysterious property to make it more scifi, or abduct people for science. They kept it simple. Some convoluted complicated reason. They could have said screw Indians. Make it a white only movie. But they included everyone together against a common cause

    Classic idea, but better than just portraying natives fighting seperately and more helplessly than their Caucasians + 1 mexican + adopted native counterpart

    It’s just a movie. The movie isn’t deep or even trying to be deep. Don’t judge a movie made and designed as a pond because it’s not like an ocean. It’s not going for that