Cowboys & Aliens is probably not the best film of 2011, but it may well be the most entertaining. Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford highlight an excellent cast that appears to be genuinely enjoying itself. Jon Favreau follows up his success with Iron Man and Iron Man 2 by demonstrating he is perfectly comfortable hemming a large production number. Meanwhile, the film's seven writers give us ample time with the supporting cast to make us care about the people in the action sequences without slowing down the pace.

Craig plays Jake Lonergan who wakes up in the desert with a wound in his side, a strange, manacle-sized bracelet on his wrist, and a case of short-term memory loss. The opening is reminiscent of the beginning of Lawrence Kasdan's Silverado, the first of many visual or narrative—but subtle—nods to beloved summer popcorn classics. Jake is immediately set upon by bounty seekers, and the ease with which he dispatches them, as well as how easily he stands up to a drunken bully outside the town saloon, hint that behind the reticent demeanor is a man not to be trifled with. It turns out that Jake is a wanted criminal, and he and the drunk are being shipped to a U.S. Marshal when their coach is besieged first by a posse led by town cattle magnate Woodrow Dolorhyde (Harrison Ford) and immediately after by … well, considering the title, is it a spoiler to say by a close encounter of the nastiest kind?

Daniel Craig as Jake Lonergan

Daniel Craig as Jake Lonergan

There are pretty much two ways to play material of this sort—as self-parody, like Snakes on a Plane, or pretty much straight, noting the impossibilities but taking them in relative stride, like Back to the Future. Favreau opts for the latter, and it suits the premise well. When the aliens lasso away several members of the town, the squabbling factions must unite in the face of a superior foe in order to go after their loved ones. There is more than a little nobility in the way each character comes to terms with his or her own vulnerability and elects to continue fighting.

The theme of courage in the face of unimaginable odds, while not profoundly new, would not play well in a film that was cheeky or camp, and it does play well here. More importantly, it allows each character (Ford's Woodrow, especially) at least a small layer of depth. Craig and Ford have both been in big budget films before, and they have enough faith in their ability to not ham it up—to be somewhat reticent and let the audience come to them. It is a joy, especially, to see Ford rejuvenated after his tired walk-through in the last Indiana Jones film. Among the supporting cast, Adam Beach does his usual yeoman's job, and Sam Rockwell, Olivia Wilde, and Keith Carradine all play along. Child actors in such films often grate, but even Noah Ringer shines as a young boy who sees way too much, too early, and yet finds a way to survive.

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Harrison Ford as Woodrow Dolorhyde

Harrison Ford as Woodrow Dolorhyde

There's also a town preacher named Meacham (Clancy Brown) who exhorts a barkeeper to stand up to a bully and comforts the afflicted with promises that those who have passed away are "in a better place." He's strictly a stock character and his theology appears to have more in common with Ben Franklin than the Apostle Paul, but at least he's a step up from the assortment of hypocrites or charlatans that inhabit many Hollywood films. Given the film's central thematic thrust—that when survival is at stake, all personal differences must be put aside so that we can work together for the common good—it was enough that the preacher was represented as a positive contributor to the team effort of overcoming the enemy.

Olivia Wilde as Ella Swenson

Olivia Wilde as Ella Swenson

Another mark in the film's favor is Olivia Wilde's turn as Ella, a relative stranger to the town who seems to know more about Jake's recent past than he does himself. She's no Ellen Ripley (Aliens) or Sarah Connor (Terminator)—perhaps more like Marion Ravenwood of Raiders of the Lost Ark—but in a summer that's given us a lot of unlikeable female characters (Larry Crowne, Transformers: Dark of the Moon, Bad Teacher, Bridesmaids) and treated its likeable ones either shabbily or as window dressing (The Hangover, X-Men: First Class, Thor), it's nice to see at least one big budget flick trying not to alienate half the population. Ella may have to be rescued at least once, but she is no damsel in distress. The film makes it clear that the cowboys couldn't prevail without everyone pulling his or her own weight.

Something wicked this way comes

Something wicked this way comes

My largest qualm with Cowboys & Aliens was the intensity and duration of the violence. While not as bloated as the last acts of Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides or Transformers: Dark of the Moon, the film's final action set piece was too long and too labored. (From a logical/continuity standpoint, too, the film's depiction of damages/casualties taken relative to the effort required to kill one of the aliens doesn't add up.) It could also face a generational divide: a few of the older viewers at the advanced screening found the action sequences too gruesome and the premise too stupid (rather than fun) to be really enjoyable. That being said, I don't think too many people are going to wander into the theater expecting The Tree of Life. The film delivers exactly what it promises.

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Talk About It

Discussion starters
  1. Meacham says that God does not care who you "were," only who you "are." Is this an adequate, accurate representation of God?
  2. To what extent are the aliens represented as animals and to what extent as sentient creatures? Is there any evidence from the film that the aliens have moral knowledge?
  3. How accurate or believable is the film's representation of prejudice? Can/does animosity disappear during a confrontation with a common enemy?

The Family Corner

For parents to consider

Cowboys & Aliens is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of western and sci-fi action and violence, some partial nudity, and a brief crude reference. God's name is used as epithet at least three times, though the most common swear word throughout is "hell." Wilde's character has one brief (and completely gratuitous) nude scene, though she is only shown only waist up from the back. The violence is not as explicit or gory as a typical monster or horror film, but it is intense. A small child is terrorized by an alien in one scene, and a woman's body is incinerated and turned to ash in another gruesome scene. One character is shown drunk and references to prostitution are made, though the practice itself is not depicted. Several scenes could be disturbing to pre-teens.

Cowboys & Aliens
Our Rating
3½ Stars - Good
Average Rating
(18 user ratings)ADD YOURSHelp
Mpaa Rating
PG-13 (for intense sequences of western and sci-fi action and violence, some partial nudity and a brief crude reference)
Directed By
Jon Favreau
Run Time
1 hour 59 minutes
Daniel Craig, Harrison Ford, Olivia Wilde
Theatre Release
July 29, 2011 by Universal Pictures
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