Cowboys, Aliens, and Original Blockbusters

I wanted to see Cowboys and Aliens as soon as I saw the advertising. Partly, it struck me as a cool idea. I also wanted to support any big-budget Hollywood summer movie that wasn’t a sequel, prequel, remake, or adaptation from a TV show, best-selling novel, or comic book.

Besides, a new western is a rare treat these days, even one with such an outlandish gimmick. I was also intrigued by the artless, blunt “This is what we’re giving you” title. A big movie today needs a title that tells you what you’ll be seeing in no uncertain terms. Most do this simply by being part of a franchise. If the title starts with Spiderman or Harry Potter, you know what you’re getting. You also know what you’re getting with Snakes on a Plane or Cowboys and Aliens (or for that matter, with the only art-house film I know of with such a blunt title: Young People Fucking).

I don’t buy movie tickets because of a genre or title. My final decision came only after seeing the mostly-positive reviews. Unfortunately, other priorities kept me out of the theater while the movie became a flop—or at least a “disappointment.” I don’t know why C&A hasn’t drawn a bigger audience, but I know what conclusion the studio heads will make: It’s too dangerous to invest a big budget in a movie that isn’t a sequel, prequel, remake, or adaptation from a TV show, best-selling novel, or comic book.

I finally saw the movie yesterday afternoon, in a near-empty theater. This movie deserves better.

Cowboys and Aliens comes very close to being an excellent neo-classic western. I’m not just talking about the easy stuff, like dirt. The plot, especially in the first act, offers vague suggestions of Rio Bravo and other classics without going over the line into rip-off. From the first to the last shot, it shows considerable love and understanding of the entire genre.

The actors all have the right look, playing characters that walk that fine line between archetypes and fully-developed human beings that make Ford’s best work so impressive. Daniel Craig stars as the lone, quiet gunslinger who wanders into town. Harrison Ford is the rich cattle baron who runs the town that Craig’s character wanders into. You’ve got the hotshot kid (Paul Dano), the saloon keeper (Sam Rockwell), and the sheriff (Keith Carradine). All that’s lacking is the drunken doctor and the whore with the heart of gold.

But then the aliens attack, and it gets kind of silly. It’s still fun, both because the alien action scenes are well done, and because by then we’re invested in the characters. But I couldn’t help suspecting that the filmmakers wanted to make a western, but couldn’t get financing without adding aliens.

The aliens, of course, are evil, ugly, and utterly lacking in subtlety or characterization. While the movie takes from the best of westerns, its science fiction elements seem taken directly from the Big Book of Movie Clichés.

Yes, much of it is predictable (anyone who doesn’t realize that the little kid would use that knife in an important way has never seen a Hollywood movie). But that’s part of the fun of genre. Cowboys and Aliens handles one genre expertly, and the other passably. I give it a B.