The Title Is the Least Confusing Part of 'Cowboys & Aliens'

Critics puzzle over a deadly serious $100 million summer movie

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It feels redundant to say that Cowboys & Aliens, which opens in theaters tomorrow, is an uneasy blend of two very different genres. It's called Cowboys & Aliens, after all. Daniel Craig plays the cowhand hero and Harrison Ford is the (non-alien) bad guy. That's why we were intrigued to hear that film somehow manages to be more curious in execution than in theory. The reviews haven't been good--it currently has a 40 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes--but it's nice to see a studio tentpole that can bring America's film critics out of their mid-summer malaise, even if it doesn't make a lick of sense.

Roger Ebert offered the best primer on the film's schizophrenic tone.

Here is a movie set in 1873 with cowboys, aliens, Apaches, horses, spaceships, a murdering stagecoach robber, a preacher, bug-eyed monsters, a bartender named Doc, a tyrannical rancher who lives outside a town named Absolution, his worthless son, two sexy women (one not from around here), bandits, a magic bracelet, an ancient Indian cure for amnesia, a symbolic hummingbird, a brave kid with a spyglass, and a plucky dog who follows the good guys for miles and miles through the barren waste and must be plumb tuckered out.

This is not a satire. Nor is it a comedy. Humanity is in danger, and it's up to the rough-hewn cowboys of the Old West to save us.

At Salon, Andrew O'Hehir negatively compared the film to a chicken Caesar salad. Not just any chicken Caesar salad, but "the chicken Caesar with raspberry vinaigrette, bleu cheese and some of those godawful walnuts crumbled on top."  Writing in the Boston Globe, Ty Burr offered a more generous--and blurbable--analogy, enthusing,"[it] is Aliens on the open plains, Independence Day for the nation’s centennial." At the New York Observer, Rex Reed opted to make the "John Ford meets The Twilight Zone" comparison, while Entertainment Weekly's Owen Gleiberman thought it was more like "Rio Bravo set in a dusty mining town full of cowards and bullies...a plodding entertainment because it mostly tastes like leftovers."

At the very least, writes The AV Club's Keith Phipps, director Jon Favreau delivers on what he promises. Advises Phipps: "You want cowboys and aliens in the same movie? This one’s for you. If you want anything beyond what the title promises, look elsewhere."

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