Cowboys & Aliens Plays High Camp at High Noon

Not even Indiana Jones and James Bond can save the newfangled Western from its inane concept.

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Ford and Craig.

Cowboys & Aliens is one of the silliest movies ever made, but so many otherwise serious people have attached their names to it that, as Arthur Miller wrote in Death of a Salesman, attention must be paid. Steven Spielberg and Ron Howard are among the tangle of producers whose credits stretch from here to the next millennium, the idiotic screenplay boasts no fewer than five writers, and although I cannot imagine this farcical fusion of two separate film genres (science fiction and the Western) appealing to anyone over the age of 12, the two marquee lures at the top of the cast list are not exactly part of the bubble gum brigade. So with all the elements in place, another in a long line of cinematic comic books could be a surprise hit as it reaches its target audience, right up there next to the abysmal Captain America. Never underestimate the desperation of summer moviegoers to escape reality no matter how much they trash their I.Q.’s. They’ll do anything to get out of a heat wave.

Too bad Mr. Spielberg didn’t also direct, instead of Jon Favreau, a terrible TV actor (Robot Chicken) who has somehow morphed into helming third-rate movies (Iron Man). He doesn’t show a single shred of originality as he piles on the clichés in a parody of everything from The Big Country to It Came from Outer Space, but the one Cowboys & Aliens owes the most to is the low-budget and forgotten The Dead and the Damned, in which a meteor lands in the middle of the California Gold Rush and turns everyone into zombies. The result here is equally hilarious, but Cowboys & Aliens works best when it plays it straight (an idea of Harrison Ford’s) instead of campy. And so, from time to time, it actually holds one’s attention between the episodes of violence and carnage.

One morning in the 1870s, Daniel Craig wakes up with amnesia in the desert near Absolution, Ariz. (played by New Mexico), wearing a strange metal bracelet attached to his wrist that looks like unisex jewelry at the Newport Beach art show. He has no memory of who he is or where he came from. He’s filthy, splattered with blood and barefoot, but with a great haircut. Riding alone into town like Shane, he quickly attracts the attention of a vicious, ruthless cattle baron named Colonel Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford), his maniacal son (hysterically overacted by the pickle-faced Paul Dano), a comely barfly named Ella (Olivia Wilde), an honest but outnumbered sheriff (Keith Carradine), a well-meaning preacher (Clancy Brown), a nervous, nerdy saloon keeper who needs a Valium (Sam Rockwell) and an Indian cowhand (Adam Beach).

When the Unknown Man is suddenly recognized as the face on the wanted poster in the local jail—a feared stagecoach robber named Jake Lonergan—the sheriff makes plans to cart him off to the federal marshal. But this is a Western, see, so Shane doesn’t die. Thirty minutes into what looks like a routine sagebrush saga, the shackle on Mr. Craig’s arm lights up, a space ship blows up the town, and a monster from another planet abducts half the citizens, including the colonel’s rabid son, Percy. (A homicidal maniac named Percy? These are the laughs, kids.) Mr. Ford and Mr. Craig have no choice but to pool their two-fisted talents in a rescue mission, form a posse and track the monster to a canyon of death. The rest of the movie is John Ford meets The Twilight Zone. Oh, did I forget to mention the Apaches? It wouldn’t be a Western without the Indians. They join the fray too—but what good is a tomahawk against $50 million of computer-generated special effects designed by George Lucas? The penultimate showdown, between the alien invaders and the Roy Rogers boots, spurs, arrows and six-guns, is noisy but less thrilling than expected. Still, the movie aims for nothing but entertainment, and I must admit it’s fun watching two grizzled roughnecks go at it like they were doing something meaningful and important.

What, in the final analysis, is it all about? It seems the extraterrestrial creatures, who seem to know a lot about the stock market, are looking for gold. In the funniest line in the picture, Harrison Ford wrinkles his face of solid granite and snarls: “Well, that is ridiculous! What are they going to do—buy something?”


Running time 118 minutes

Written by Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman, Damon Lindelof, Mark Fergus and Hawk Ostby

Directed by Jon Favreau

Starring Harrison Ford, Daniel Craig, Paul Dano and Olivia Wilde



  1. Guest says:

    When you can’t get 30 words into a review of a movie called “Cowboys & Aliens” without reading the name Arthur Miller, it is pretty clear you’re dealing with a critic who takes himself too seriously and resents having to step down off his mountain top to indulge the popular tastes of the plebes. Get over yourself, Rex.

    1. wenditardis17 says:

      Not only that but this guy apparently didn’t just dislike, but loathed, Iron Man and Captain America … two pretty well reviewed recent fliks. Oy. This guy probably drinks his tea with his pinky out. :-/

  2. Lschanock says:

    Rex, just want to remind you Star Wars opened to a similar review, at your age you need a different perspective, imo.  Star Wars did pretty well in spite of the critics, and this Screenplay was a page-turning ride!! 

  3. Caf says:

    Rex clearly has a loathsome personality, and it appears that his methods or criticism are rooted in hate. To pigeon-hole Favreu as a “terrible TV actor” without mentioning the wondrous “Swingers,” or his directorial gem, “Elf,” is indicative of his pessimism.

  4. jadez says:

    not sure why the same people come here to bash reed but if you just dont like someone dont read them.

    and you seem the child by not realizing a mature person simply takes the info for what it is worth.
    its not aboutbashing and calling names and the silly gay innuendo.

    its one mans perspective.

    grow up you children. 

    1. Lschanock says:

      Reading all of the top critic’s reviews as they carry great weight as to whether a movie has a successful opening……And of course, Rotten Tomatoes carries ALL of the reviews, so if they think it is bad, I want to know why!

  5. Bobo says:

    Rex Reed is the best most witty reviewer around today…

    1. Lschanock says:

      Would never dispute Rex on his wittiness and intellectual views; just  that we are from the same generation, well almost ;), and I don’t think this movie was trying to be anything more than it is… a nod to the westerns made in the past just as the first Star Wars was a nod to the early light but serious sequel entertainment of yesteryear!  

    2. David says:

      Roger Ebert says hi.

  6. Harryzulu says:

    Hang in there Rex…you’re a dying breed.  As many comments here show, a critic that was raised in an era when literature and art were serious topics of discussion, and not merely vehicles for distraction and mindless escapism, will not be fully appreciated by the masses.  More and more big hollywood films are aimed at a broad 12 – 30 year old audience.  Imagine, our culture is so lame that 12 and 30 year olds share similar intellectual interests.  If you don’t care for thoughtful criticism, don’t read articles by thoughtful critics.

  7. I have to comment one more time this morning. I really don’t like commenting on films i haven’t seen so suffice to say I may go see “Cowboys and Aliens” just to see how many millions were spent on what is apparently an over-produced diversion with a few amusing moments, per Rex Reed’s review. The mixing of two genres such as the western and  ’50s science fiction seems like water and oil to me but again, as Mr. Reed points out, this production has some pretty impressive names attached to it. My reason for commenting is to address the snide remark from a reader below who writes that Mr. Reed “probably drinks tea with his pinky out”. I loved “the old days” when people could read a stimulating movie or theater review in a paper or publication before the era when every average Joe or Jolene could contribute their two cents worth of worthless venom in the comment spaces below the piece and often crucify the critic because his/her opinion doesn’t match theirs. The” tea with the pinky out” remark is a rather toothless statement that hides a more sinister dig and is unwarranted. Keep up the good work, Mr. Reed. I’ve been reading your articles and reviews since  your famous NY Times piece on Buster Keaton. I also loved listening to your critiques along with other film critics on a NY radio station when I lived in Huntington ,NY back in the late 60s. Sometimes a highly disagree with some of your reviews but not too often, but your a critic (and a damn fine one) and I realize that.

  8. SB says:

    Thank you, Rex, for that perfect review! My husband and I just got back from seeing that…movie, and we are so dismayed. It was as awful as you so wonderfully described. What hubris to have five writers!

  9. Marco says:

    Saw the movie. Ridiculous? Predictable? Same-ol’ CGI overkill? Yep. Yep. You betcha’. But I still enjoyed the heck out of it. So did my wife (who generally hates sci-fi). It’s a summer-fun, grab the popcorn, check your brain at the door kind of movie. It was everything I expected it to be. It was just what I wanted out of a movie after a long work week. Not every movie can be  CITIZEN KANE, or should be.