There’s something timeless about a good Western, even if the genre has generally fallen out of favor with modern filmgoers. Sprinkle in some scary aliens, stunning special effects, and a terrific cast and the mashup film Cowboys & Aliensturns out to be a terrific and highly entertaining summer tentpole adventure.
Set in sparsely populated New Mexico around 1875, the film starts with bad hombre Jake Lonergan (Daniel Craig) waking up in the middle of nowhere, with no memory of who he is or how he got there. Stuck to his wrist is a strange metal bracelet, one that is built of technology far beyond what he’s ever seen. Three ruffians show up and try to jump him, saying “son, this just ain’t your lucky day” but they’re wrong. It’s their unlucky day and Jake demonstrates he hasn’t forgotten his fighting skills.
Heading into the sleepy, impoverished town of Absolution, he has a scuffle with local bully Percy (Paul Dano) and ends up tossed in jail by Sheriff Taggart (Keith Carradine). Just as they’re about to leave for the Federal court in Santa Fe, Percy’s Dad Colonel Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford) shows up and, more dramatically, so do alien spacecraft out of the gloom, intent on lassoing and kidnapping humans.
The juxtaposition of the mythic Old West with the technology and frightening visage of the aliens are at the heart of this movie and Iron Man director Favreau doesn’t disappoint.The creatures are reminiscent of Predator, with some internal plumbing all their own. Westerns are just as much about the sweeping plains and endless skies and Cowboys & Aliens has it’s share of beautiful vistas. In fact, subtract the alien element and it’s a terrific Western with believable personalities, sets and lots of tough hombres on horseback. Fun!
Human vs. alien movies end with the humans winning. It’s the heart of just about every film, that good guys overcome bad guys. Cowboys & Aliens still manages to have an engaging storyline and its aggressive special visual effects notch up the tension quite a bit. We know the cowboys win, but with the Indians on their side? That’s a central theme in the film too: in times of trouble, disparate people can band together to fight the alien invaders.
Rather to his surprise, Lonergan finds out that the chunky metal bracelet stuck on his arm is actually a weapon and he manages to shoot down one of the alien craft from the sky. The creature from the alien vessel bolts into the scrub and Lonergan, Colonel Dolarhyde, Mexican worker Nat Colorado (Adam Beach), saloon barkeep Doc (Sam Rockwell), the town preacher Meacham (Clancy Brown) and the beautiful and mysterious Ella (Olivia Wilde) join a posse to track it down and kill it.
It’s a classic Western theme, where a town lives under the iron hand of town rancher Colonel Dolarhyde and the mysterious stranger ambles in, gets into trouble, then turns out to be the town’s only salvation. The twist here is that Lonergan and Dolarhyde have to join forces and even befriend and work with Lonergan’s former band of outlaws and the local Chiricahua Apache warriors. The aliens, after all, don’t differentiate. Humans are humans.
While the narrative is surprisingly well assembled, there are still some core questions that left this reviewer a bit befuddled. Chief among them is why the aliens kidnapped and enslaved humans in the first place. The explanation given made no sense, and given the dramatic disparity between the human and alien firepower (think a bow and arrow against a fighter jet), why didn’t the aliens just wipe everyone out? Of course, there’d be no parallel between the ranchers lassoing and roping livestock and the aliens lassoing humans, certainly a frightening image.
Jake Lonergan (Daniel Craig) and Colonel Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford), from Cowboys & Aliens
I am a big fan of Sam Rockwell and found myself engaged in his story and his journey from town pacifist to gun-toting cowboy. He was one of the most sympathetic characters in the film. Harrison Ford, by contrast, was playing his recent type: crusty old guy. Craig was similarly wooden in his role, but as the 21st Century stand-in for legendary Western actor and tough guy Yul Brynner, his role was more suited to someone with minimal emotions. Young actor Noah Ringer overshadowed both of them as Emmett Taggart, the grandson of Sheriff Taggart.
There are a lot of cliché Western archetypes in Cowboys & Aliens, but I enjoyed them and found the grizzled old man, the scroungy ranch hand, the teary orphan boy, the noble sheriff and the spiritual indian all comfortable characters that helped the narrative seem familiar enough that the juxtaposition of weird, scary alien was that much more effective. By contrast, the denouement of the alien at the end of Super 8 was the worst part of the film. I don’t want sympathetic aliens, I want a clear enemy.
It’s the heat of the summer and while deep, thoughtful films are always welcome, there’s also a place in the cinema for a fun, mindless action adventure, and with the combined talents of (producer) Steven Spielberg, Jon Favreau, James Bond (Craig) and Indiana Jones (Ford), Cowboys & Aliens delivers a fun two hours. Recommended.