Director – Ari Novak, Screenplay – Anthony Fankhauser, Producers – Anthony Fankhauser & Ari Novak, Photography – Stuart Brereton, Music – Christopher Cano, Visual Effects – Oracle Film Group (Supervisor – Joseph Sandoval), Makeup Design – Yvonne Reddy, Production Design – Ezra Olson. Production Company – Attack Team Entertainment.
Rib Hillis (Val Walker), Casey Fitzgerald (Sky), Vernon Wells (Marcus), Kelcey Watson (Quaid), John Freeman (Sheriff Henry), Sara Malakul Lane (Dr Sinclair), Eric Roberts (Trent Walker), Heather Foote (Jenny), Jamie Greany (Jonie)
The small town of Livingston, Montana. Workers at the Lando Mine are ordered to drill down to tap a rich source of iridium. Instead the drilling unleashes velociraptors that kill most of the crew. The sole survivor, the foreman Quaid, tries to tell the site supervisor what happened but his story is ridiculed and so he sets out to prove what he is saying. Meanwhile, cowboy Val Walker returns to town but faces many unresolved issues over his abandoning his girlfriend, the waitress Sky, and the incident in which he lost his nerve to get back on a horse. She is now involved with the sheriff Henry who determines to run Val out of town. At the same time, the mine’s owner Marcus pushes the workers back to work, only for a detonation to unleash a horde of dinosaurs trapped down in a hollow pocket of rock, which now emerge to run rampant through the town.
Cowboys vs. Dinosaurs is another entry into the fad for ‘vs’ titled films we have had in recent years – AVP: Alien vs Predator (2004), Mega Shark vs Giant Octopus (2009), Vampire Girl vs Frankenstein Girl (2009), Dahmer vs Gacy (2010), Scott Pilgrim vs the World (2010) etc etc. Clear inspiration seems to have been taken from the recent Cowboys and Aliens (2011). Beyond that, there have been a host of Western/genre fusion films placing vampires, aliens, zombies and the like in Old West settings with films such as Curse of the Undead (1959), Billy the Kid Versus Dracula (1966), Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter (1966), High Plains Invaders (2009) and others, after which this seemed fairly inevitable. It should be noted though that we did previously have cowboys up against dinosaurs in the Ray Harryhausen film The Valley of Gwangi (1969). (For a more detailed overview see my essay Weird Westerns).
The disappointment that soon sets in is that Cowboys vs. Dinosaurs is not a Western but is set contemporary. This waters down much of the appeal that the idea suggests upfront – ie. there is less interest in modern guys wandering around in cowboy hats, calling everybody “ma’am” and driving pick-up trucks than there is of gunslingers, wild frontiersmen and Injuns on horses encountering elements of the fantastique. Not to mention that one has to grate their teeth through a series of country-and-western songs on the soundtrack. (Cowboys vs. Dinosaurs appears to have inspiration to the title of the unrelated and incredibly bad Cowgirls vs Pterodactyls (2021), which at least is a Western).
You kind of hoped we would get something as visually magnificent as the scenes of cowboys roping dinosaurs in The Valley of Gwangi or even akin to the cowboys up against a giant ape that we had in Mighty Joe Young (1949). We do in a couple of scenes where Rib Hilis goes into action on horseback but there is just not the same frisson there or in other scenes watching someone shooting at a pursuing T-Rex from the back of a speeding pick-up.
What must be said though is that the human drama passes with a conviction and seriousness, while there is the believable feel of people going about their lives in a small Montana town. Rib Hillis makes a surprisingly solid and convincing lead – he seems to slide into the role of modern cowboy in jeans, boots and hat as though he was born to it. The only recognisable names present are a workaholic Eric Roberts in a forgettable role as Rib Hillis’s drunken father and Vernon Wells, who has been steadily padding a B movie resume ever since Mad Max 2 (1981), as the mercenary-minded mine owner. There is also Sara Malakul Lane, who has appeared in a lot of low-budgeted films in recent years, playing a scientist and trying to act authoritative.
The film slings together a good number of familiar plot devices for this genre – the ruthless and recklessly determined business owner; the cover-up and efforts made to minimise the threat by the town officials; the hero returned to town because of the girl and his Unfinished Business that caused him to lose his nerve. That said, the film enlivens these and makes the show come together reasonably well – moreover, without any need to throw in constant genre references or humour. The dinosaur effects vary between surprisingly good and the occasionally ropy, while those that come during the invasion of the town are the best the film has to offer. It certainly emerges better than the throwaway B-movie one expected going in.
The only quibble is the same that one has with both Evolution (2001) and Piranha (2010) – and that is how does an entire biosphere manage to exist in a single underground cave, which would be required to house species that stayed alive for millions of years and multiple generations, not to mention the need for an entire food chain for them to feed on? The amount of bones left by even a single one of the species over this period of time would have filled the cave several hundred times over.
Cowboys vs. Dinosaurs was the third film for Ari Novak who had previously made two non-genre efforts and has since gone on to specialise in cute puppy films. Screenwriter/co-producer Anthony Fankhauser had produced a great many films for The Asylum, as well as directed 2012: Supernova (2009), Gacy House (2010), Shadow People (2011) and Jurassic Attack (2013).