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Cowboys & Aliens: Two genres, one empty blockbuster

1.5 out of 4 stars


First, a heartfelt thanks to the screenwriting quintet listed below. It makes my job so much easier when the movie's title doubles as a full plot summary. Cowboys & Aliens – pretty much says it all. And to think it only took five of them.

As for who's who, well, Harrison Ford and Daniel Craig suit up for the cowboys, although, given his status a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, Harrison can be considered something of a convert.

Over on the aliens side, it's hard to make out faces, but there's no doubt about their place of origin: These slimy, growling, bug-eyed and distinctly non-scary things are straight from central casting.

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Actually, the ampersand in the title is a tad misleading, since the genres never fuse into an extraterrestrial horse opera. A more accurate label would be Cowboys, Then Aliens, Then Cowboys Again, Then a Big Mess of Aliens. There's no whole, just parts, so let's examine them separately.


Jake (Craig) wakes up in the badlands with a bad case of amnesia and a thick metal bracelet locked onto his left wrist. Still, we know Jake's a cowboy 'cause he shoots three men before the credits roll, then rides into town as the lone stranger. There, you got your rich and imperious cattle baron (Ford), his punk of a son, the good yet ineffectual sheriff, the wussy saloon keeper with his specs, and the tow-headed kid who's about to grow up quick. The town is called Absolution but Stereotypeville seems more apt. The exception could be Ella (Olivia Wilde). Her gingham dress is clichéd enough, but those eyes do look unconventionally bright.


Initially, they pop up in their flying machines, spewing fire and snatching victims aloft and generally spooking the horses. The appearance of said machines suddenly prompts Jake's bracelet to emit a ring tone, light up and morph into a weapon of mass destruction – it's enough to make Apple rethink the iPhone 5. Anyway, the cowboys, being cowboys, seem remarkably blasé about the "demons" in their midst, and are quick to do the manly thing: They form a posse.

Cowboys Again

Off the posse rides into the badlands, presumably in the vague direction of the you-know-whos. The posse encounters bandits and stage-robbers, yet not for long – Jake pulls his bracelet on them. Later, the posse further encounters the cowboys' erstwhile enemies, the Injuns, although there's nothing like a shared intergalactic adversary to turn former foes into fast friends. Or, as those five scribes so eloquently put it: "We must work together." Somewhere along the way, we get our first close-up glimpse of a central-casting alien, and immediately understand why the cowboys are so blasé.

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Big Mess of Aliens

Nestled down in an arroyo, the mother ship is sighted. Cowboys, Indians, surviving bandits and Ella all gather for the Gunfight at the E.T. Corral. There, the central-casting aliens prove touchingly vulnerable to six-shooters, arrows, ropes, that bracelet, and an occasional punch to their slimy noggins. In the midst of the frenzy, Ella gives Jake a piece of advice that resonates deeply with the audience: "You have to stop thinking."

Of course, for performers in the empty blockbuster genre, you have to stop acting too. Craig manages the feat quite well simply by going blank and channelling the young Clint Eastwood. Ford is less successful, insisting on discharging his dialogue as if his mouth were stuffed with a bale of cotton. The words come out in a deep growl accompanied by a bug-eyed stare – you almost get the feeling he wants to switch sides.

Now, since this is decidedly not an actor's picture, it would behoove Jon Favreau, who so recently put the irony into Iron Man, to make it a director's picture. Given the lumpy action, the clunky camera, the scareless frights and the mirthless laughs, it's safe to conclude that Favreau declined the challenge with a polite but firm, "No, thank you." Amen to that, pardner.

Cowboys & Aliens

  • Directed by Jon Favreau
  • Written by Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman, Damon Lindelof, Mark Fergus, Hawk Ostby
  • Starring Daniel Craig, Harrison Ford and Olivia Wilde
  • Classification: 14A
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About the Author
Film critic

Rick Groen is a film critic for The Globe and Mail. More

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