Was ‘Cowboys & Aliens’ Really That Bad?


The Big Picture

  • The tone of Cowboys & Aliens is its Achilles’ heel, with unintentionally campy moments dragging down its potential.
  • The film excels in design and atmosphere, combining the Western and science fiction genres.
  • Harrison Ford’s performance, full of energy and delightful relish, is a highlight of Cowboys & Aliens.

Remember that time Jon Favreau directed a movie starring Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford as cowboys who fought aliens — and it was titled, rather brilliantly, Cowboys & Aliens? No, that moment wasn’t a pop culture-induced fever dream. Favreau currently co-shepherds the live-action Star Wars television universe alongside his partner in crime Dave Filoni, but in 2011, hot off the heels of Iron Man 2, Favreau swung for the fences in this attempt at a science fiction/Western hybrid.

“Attempt” is the key phrase. Cowboys & Aliens approached the Western genre with wholehearted sincerity, and there are numerous moments where that tonal dedication pays off. There are also times when the film’s refusal to so much as acknowledge parody as a possibility topples it into unintentionally-ludicrous territory. The key question, then: is that sin awkward enough to slap Cowboys & Aliens with the “bad movie is bad” label and dismiss it to the annals of forgotten mid-2000s box office flops?

Cowboys & Aliens

A spaceship arrives in 1873 Arizona to take over the Earth, starting with the Wild West region. All that stands in their way: a posse of cowboys and natives.

Release Date
July 29, 2011
Runtime
119 minutes

‘Cowboys & Aliens’ Is Exactly What It Sounds Like

I’m beholden to admit my bias before we proceed further. I vividly remember sitting in the dark with my nerdy friends as we awaited the midnight premiere of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows: Part 1. The teaser for Cowboys & Aliens unfolded to an unsuspecting full house. Harrison Ford’s in cowboy gear? Okay, sure, but why are things exploding? The title card came up, and the theater lost it with raucous laughter. My group huddled up to whisper-yell “that was amazing.” We were open-minded souls with three lifetimes of adoration for Mr. Ford and one concentrated infatuation with Daniel Craig, so when the summer of 2011 rolled around, we made a field day of seeing the film.

Did Cowboys & Aliens live up to those elated expectations? Of course not. It amounted to a shoulder shrug, a disappointment not heartbreaking but still unfortunate. Several years later, I re-watched it void of expectations and found myself with a more forgiving demeanor. Mind, this comes from someone raised on Mystery Science Theater 3000, so my tolerance — nay, fondness — for camp, cheese, and full-out bad might be higher than the average person’s. If one turns their mind off and accepts Cowboys & Aliens for what it is — nothing more, nothing less — then it’s either a surprisingly bold and therefore retrospectively satisfying try for something new, or a hot mess delivered in a riotously entertaining package.

Jon Favreau Respected Western Traditions in ‘Cowboys & Aliens’

Based on a graphic novel of the same name and similar conceit (although the film takes significant liberties with the plot), Cowboys & Aliens was in development at Universal Pictures for roughly a decade before Favreau took the directing mantle in the wake of Iron Man‘s box office domination. Favreau’s reverence for the classic Western and his dedication to recreating its cinematic language is obvious from the production design and shooting locations to his refusal to convert the film from anamorphic 35mm film to 3D.

Certainly, the cast and crew’s devotion to capturing the traditional Western aesthetics plays in Cowboys & Aliens‘ favor. Acting-wise, everyone plays the premise as straight as a board. There’s not so much as a twitch of a smile, no meta in-jokes or self-aware observations. Ford and Craig fit the genre like a tailored glove. As Jake Lonergan, an amnesiac criminal who escaped alien abduction, Craig weaponizes his steely blue gaze. He aims for stoicism as he stares into the middle distance, but underneath, Jake’s broiling with a dozen emotions. Ford’s so perfect as the town’s deliciously nasty cattle baron, Colonel Woodrow Dolarhyde (whoever invented that name deserves a raise), it makes one long for an alternate version of his career where quality Western roles were as consistent as his action-adventure turns. (Well, at least we have Ford in the Yellowstone spin-off 1923.)

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Frankly, the entire cast pops off; they elevate and invigorate what might be a snooze fest in less capable hands. Olivia Wilde feels a touch out of sync with the others, admittedly, but there’s the great character actor Sam Rockwell as the bespectacled town doctor with dreams of running a tavern; Paul Dano running wild as Dolarhyde’s disaster of a son; the ever-dependable Clancy Brown as the local preacher, and Keith Carradine as the sheriff. When it comes to an absurdist shoot-em-up spectacle movie, a quality cast goes a long way.

‘Cowboys & Aliens’ Excels at Design and Atmosphere

Jake (Daniel Craig) standing with his back to the camera, looking at a deserted town in Cowboys & Aliens
Image via Universal Pictures

The American Western and science fiction are two of film’s most recognizable and versatile genres. Cowboys can suit almost any story, alien motivations are flexible. Favreau and company’s unnamed race of conquerors don’t have personality beyond “give me gold” and “kill humans,” but Legacy Effects, the company behind those kick-ass practical effects in Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves, designed a disgustingly unsettling concoction somewhere between a xenomorph and WWE fighter. (It makes sense when you see them body-slamming on a battlefield.) Combined with Industrial Light & Magic’s visual effects, it’s damn good creature work.

One of the film’s standout sequences, however, employs the “less is more” logic. The town stares as the spaceships, filtered through the night clouds as beautiful floating lights, draw irrevocably closer. Favreau’s invoking the majesty of the ship from Close Encounters of the Third Kind, but this beauty is cold and ominous. He nails the uneasy atmosphere and bubbling tension, so when the aliens fire upon the townspeople (timed right after Ford growls “What the hell?” in close-up), those booming explosions hit.

‘Cowboys & Aliens’ Convoluted Tone Weakens Its Potential

Daniel Craig in Cowboys & Aliens
Image via Universal Pictures

Despite its concerted efforts to the contrary, the tone is Cowboys & Aliens unavoidable Achilles’ heel. The campy incidents are unintentional byproducts. If this film followed the blueprint of The Mummy, it might be a modern classic mentioned in the same breath as that 1999 action-comedy-horror masterpiece. The Mummy understood what made Raiders of the Lost Ark so successful as a crowd-pleasing work of art (tried and true filmmaking techniques combined with a bulletproof script) and embraced its comedic elements, twisting them to its strength. That potential was present for Cowboys & Aliens. Craig plays chicken racing a horse against a spaceship and does an Indiana Jones leap onto it? Brilliant. The aliens abduct humans by firing grappling cables from their ships and snapping them off of the ground? Oddly hilarious. Likewise, there were multiple opportunities to go full-tilt horror a la The Thing. With full respect to Favreau’s intent and vision, pushing back against the inherent parody drags the movie down and results in an inconsistent, underdeveloped product.

Grumpy Ford + Southern Craig = A Superb Movie Experience

To no one’s surprise, the highlight of the entire escapade is Harrison Ford’s pissed-off, crotchety old man routine — and not for the reasons one expects. Ford doesn’t phone in a moment; he’s energetic and engaging, sinking his teeth into the scenery and snapping off chunks with delightful relish. He’s having fun as an over-the-top southern a-hole playing against Craig’s impeccably severe straight man, and that’s a joy impossible to resist. Ford doesn’t let a line delivery go to waste. Take his reaction to learning the aliens are mining gold. “Well, that’s just ridiculous,” he snarls. “What they gonna do, buy somethin’?” It’s arguably the film’s best moment and argument enough for it to exist.

Another surprising divergence from expectations is Ford and Craig’s characters, who operate as more than stock vehicles for the plot. There are moments of vulnerability and sincerely performed emotional beats. Craig in particular excels with those moments and deserved a better, genuine Western. It’s just a charming performance, especially since his besotted love for Wilde’s character makes him an adorable himbo. And there’s Craig’s wild Southern accent, which can’t go unmentioned for its eventual contributions to cinema.

The quality of Cowboys & Aliens is a matter of subjectivity if there ever was one. I’m somewhat surprised it hasn’t been re-evaluated to cult classic levels, but if this isn’t your speed, that’s valid. There’s no doubt it’s a missed opportunity. Having said that, there are times that I’m allowed to switch off the logical portion of my brain and roll with accidental farce. Life’s too short to be 100% a snob. Plus, who can argue with those cowboy fits?

Cowboys & Aliens is available to stream on Netflix in the U.S.

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