Cinema/TV, Film Notes

Film review – Cowboys and Aliens (2011)

My notes on the would-be summer blockbuster.

This story and script – credited to six people (Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman, Damon Lindelof, Mark Fergus, Hawk Ostby and Steve Oedekirk) with god knows how many other invisible hands in it (including director Jon Favreau?) – is listed as being based on a comic book by Scott Mitchell Rosenberg, though I’d guess (without bothering to look it up) that the source mostly supplied the ‘high concept’ title.  It’s sort of catchy (if not as witty as the redneck crime comedy Cowboys & Idiots) but also feels more like a menu than a movie – along with the ‘vs’ titles, it’s a throwing-together of keywords or search engine items rather than genuinely witty.  There’ve been aliens out West before, of course, in things like episodes of The Time Tunnel and TV movies like High Plains Invaders – and the whole notion of alien invasions in the historical past has been a mainstay of Doctor Who since the 1960s, and crops up in things like Outlander even if there’s a Hollywood reluctance to make War of the Worlds with a period setting.  A problem with this sort of concept is that movies tend to feel that the title is enough, and so we get a generic science fiction film and a generic western put together with results that are pleasant, entertaining and occasionally moving but somehow nothing to write home about.


Given the withering of the Western tradition – though everyone in the movies wants to make a cowboy movie and will find any excuse to do it – it’s a surprise that this works so hard on its Western angle.  A pick-and-mix approach to the genre has one star (Daniel Craig) incarnate a spaghetti western archetype – he’s literally a Man With No Name, since outlaw Jake Lonergan has suffered amnesia after an alien abduction and has hazy Leone flashbacks to his nasty Streibery experience in a flying saucer – while the other (Harrison Ford) comes from a 1950s American melodrama tradition – cattle baron Woodrow Dolarhyde follows Donald Crisp in The Man From Laramie by having a useless cowardly sadist natural son (Paul Dano) and a manly unappreciated taken-for-granted adopted top hand (here, also an Indian – Adam Beach).  It takes the Indian abduction theme of The Searchers and others but melds it with the alien abduction theme of recent X-Filesishness (which prompts the question of why any kind of abduction myth is such an entrenched part of American culture?) and has a posse of mutually hostile individuals and factions – including bartender/medical man Doc (Sam Rockwell) and a mystery gunwoman who turns out to be an alien (Olivia Wilde), plus some stalwart Indians, scurvy outlaws and character actors (Clancy Brown as a preacher) – band together to track the aliens who have snatched their loved-ones to keep a desert gold-extraction plant going (these aliens are interplanetary miners).  It’s still basic, though: the good guys track the villains to their lair, effect a rescue and see off the varmints with bullets and dynamite.


The film has great images (an upside-down riverboat dumped 500 miles from any river it could travel on), a few nicely-thought-through character licks (you can bet someone was called in especially to write Harrison Ford’s anecdotes of his wild western youth) and exciting set-pieces involving swooping alien drones which lasso humans and Jake’s fight-back using an alien zapping instrument bonded to his wrist like a shackle.  But it’s somehow disposable: the sort of movie where all the character names are taken from other movies, where every bit of business has been drawn from the back-catalogue (evoking The Man From Laramie isn’t the same as coming up with a fresh situation one-tenth as dramatic), where all the actors are doing other actors rather than playing people.  It’s big kids dressed up playing cowboys and aliens with toy guns and marvel gadgets, and that’s enough to pass an evening – compared with, say, Wild Wild West, it’s a masterpiece – but it has that theme park ride feel of the Pirates of the Caribbean films and self-destructs pretty swiftly in the memory.


I think I’d like it better if it had a Frankie Laine-type theme song, too.


2 thoughts on “Film review – Cowboys and Aliens (2011)

  1. Matt Michael Spoilers!

    David Court A corker of a spoiler at that 🙂

    Kim Newman The notes I post here are what I set down after seeing a movie, and aren’t shaped to the requirements of any particular publication. They shouldn’t be mistaken for reviews.

    Hunter Tremayne Burying the corpse after you’ve killed someone doesn’t make you any less the murderer.

    Fred Aaron Sounds to me like this was cooked up in a corporate boardroom with a few focus groups thrown in to ensure maximum return on investment dollar as opposed to anything artistically aspirational.

    David Court The previews and early indications made it sound like good fun, but it seems to have received nothing but mediocre reviews.

    Iain Wark It’s called Cowboys & Aliens. Exactly how artistically aspirational can it be expected to be? More than Reykjavik Whale Watching Massacre but less than Zombie Strippers…? I’ll give it a whirl anyway.

    Kenneth Apple ^Hunter, if you don’t want to know about a movie before you see it, don’t read stuff about it online?

    Kenneth Apple Agree totally. Fun, but nothing to write home about. Despite the fact that Kim did exactly that. A competent Hollywood action movie with some good bits, and nice turns by a couple of actors, but no real heart. @Iain, exactly so. I went to a movie called Cowboys and Aliens and was given exactly what I expected to get. Fair enough.

    Richard Harland Smith The story of how the graphic novel became a “bestseller” (the exact details of which I’ll leave up to everyone to Google on their own) is a more interesting story than COWBOYS AND ALIENS has to offer. But like Kim, I had fun with it. A big part of my enjoyment was seeing it on the big screen, with the soundtrack amped up to a sphincter-thumping amplitude – I don’t think it will be nearly as enjoyable at home.
    5 August 2011 at 15:43 · LikeShow More Reactions

    Larushka Ivan-Zadeh So basically, I won’t be missing much?

    Martyn Conterio I saw this and it’s rubbish.

    Kim Newman It’s not actually that bad, just kind of middling. It gets points for not being a remake or a presold franchise. After the screening, we were all fairly happy, but the goodwill faded by the end of the evening. It doesn’t help that it wants to be a major tentpole release when its ambitions are more like a medium-range quickie. But it’s a cowboys and aliens film, so what could we expect? Well, read Howard Waldrop’s ‘Night of the Cooters’ – which is about what happens in Texas during the War of the Worlds – and wish they’d made that instead.

    Jason Vedder It was just so average and just okay. I expected a lot more (from everyone involved) and it just seemed by the book, cliche here, cliche there. They had Keith Carradine, and they barely used him!

    Richard Harland Smith
    Richard Harland Smith Keith Carradine should have been paid double to act as a technical adviser on western acting. I thought Sam Rockwell was great.

    David Edwards Agreed, Kim. Strip out the Western setting (which is pretty much superfluous) and you’re left with a familiar sci-fi outing, a la Skyline.

    Posted by kimnewman | May 17, 2017, 11:02 am
  2. I agree that it’s a very middling film, lots of wasted potential. It’s like the writers came up with the name on a whiteboard and thought “job done”. I always felt that the film was crying out for a scene of the US cavalry fighting the aliens (in vain) or have the heroes discover the aftermath of an alien attack on an army fort.

    Posted by Mike Nolan | May 17, 2017, 11:28 am

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