Many years ago, in my teens, I had a habit of writing down every movie idea I had, as I dreamed I would one day be a filmmaker. One such idea was a western film in which aliens showed up part way through. However, a key part of the idea – perhaps the key part – was that the audience didn’t know the aliens were coming. Titling a movie Cowboys and Aliens accomplishes a few things:
- It alerts the audience to the presence of aliens, thereby ruining any suspense or surprise around the introduction of the aliens into the film
- It sells the film as a mere genre mash-up, nothing more.
There are minor spoilers in this review, but none bigger than the title of this movie.
The film opens with only one clue that it’s not a conventional western, but the actors are playing it straight and everyone is committed. The film also immediately engages in a common trope for westerns: the mysterious, tough stranger who will save this rough, corrupt town. The cuts to hints that there is something going on could have been less obvious or completely excised from the earliest parts of the film, and we might be talking about a very different film.
Yes, this film is clunky and clumsy and feels as if at least a couple of people had a hand in attempting to cut it into something salvageable. But I can’t help but I think had they had a better title the whole thing might have been better executed, just because our expectations were different.
Instead, we have a film full of great actors – I mean, this cast is incredible – doing often great work with not a lot to work off of – the dialogue is middling and often feels like it’s included solely to advance the plot – where better editing would have turned a mess into, at the very least, a passable film, perhaps even a quite entertaining one.
Nearly every aspect of the incorporation of the aliens into films bungled, from the appearance of the first spaceship, to the memories, to the first attack, to the first reveal of the look of the aliens. In terms of the aliens in the present, the bungling is all in how early everything is revealed, which I can’t help but believe comes from the decision to title the film Cowboys and Indians. But the memories are handled worse, as they feel forced and awkward, and perhaps excessive. They certainly don’t add much to the film.
All that being said: the production values are high and the acting, as I mentioned, is very good in spite of the script. It’s not terrible, it’s just a mess and a missed opportunity to make something interesting and fun.