Movie Review: Cowboys & Aliens

Cowboys & Aliens
Directed by Jon Favreau
Starring Daniel Craig, Harrison Ford, Olivia Wilde, Sam Rockwell, Adam Beach, Clancy Brown
Release Date: July 29, 2011

The two genres of film I love the most are science-fiction and westerns. They both speak to my soul and provide fuel for my imagination. When I dream of fantastic adventures, it either involves me traveling through space to magnificent distant worlds or exploring the frontier of a new nation being forged right here on Earth. Combining the two genres into one glorious and entertaining package is like presenting me with the cinematic equivalent of a Reese’s peanut butter cup. It would definitely explain why I love Firefly and its big screen sequel Serenity so dearly. But I love it when a movie crossbreeds genres like that. Among my favorite directors of all time are John Carpenter and Walter Hill, two great filmmakers who made their careers playing around with the archetypes and stylistic flourishes of western storytelling in modern settings. Hill, unlike Carpenter, actually got to make a few honest-to-God westerns in his life. Both the science-fiction and western genres are inhabited with intriguing, larger-than-life characters populating worlds filled with mystery, chaos, and wonder, another great reason why the two distinct genres complement each other so well as long as neither side overwhelms the other over the course of the story. Jon Favreau, no stranger to making films with elements of the fantastic (Elf, Zathura, the Iron Man movies), understands this perfectly and it is that understanding that accounts for a huge part of the success of his latest feature, Cowboys & Aliens.

The story takes place in 1873 in the Arizona Territory. A stranger (Daniel Craig) wakes up in the desert with no memory of who he is and how he got there. Not long after waking he is forced to brutally dispatch some men who figured he might be an escaped convict due to the bloody wound on his side and the strange bracelet-like object on his wrist and that there might be a reward to collect. The stranger then makes his way to the town of Absolution, a community of miners who have mostly moved on to gold prospecting elsewhere. His wound is tended to by the town’s reverend Meacham (Clancy Brown) but his presence soon arouses the attention of Sheriff John Taggart (Keith Carradine), who recognizes the stranger as a wanted outlaw named Jake Lonergan. The news soon reaches Colonel Woodrow Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford), the ruthless cattle baron and Civil War veteran who is the real authority in Absolution who has a vicious grudge against Lonergan.

Just as Dolarhyde and his men ride into town intending to stop Taggart from handing Lonergan over to the federal marshal for the crimes he’s accused, Absolution is suddenly attacked by strange flying machines that snatch up several of the townsfolk like roped cattle, including Dolarhyde’s troublesome son Percy (Paul Dano), the wife (Ana de la Reguera) of the town barkeep and doctor (Sam Rockwell), and Sheriff Taggart. During the attack, the device on Lonergan’s wrist activates and he uses it to shoot down one of the machines. Once the machines are gone, Dolarhyde organizes a posse to set off after them and bring the missing citizens of Absolution home. Along for the ride are Doc, Reverend Meacham, the sheriff’s grandson Emmett (Noah Ringer), Dolarhyde’s Indian tracker Nat Colorado (Adam Beach), and the elusive Ella (Olivia Wilde), who knows more about Lonergan than even he does. As the posse tracks their prey across the territory, they will encounter hostile enemies of the expected and unexpected variety and foes must become unlikely allies if they’re to save their loved ones and the world from destruction at the hands of a force they never thought they would ever encounter.

Making a film that combines two or even three different genres is much more difficult than a film that falls safely into only one. Major studios typically shy away from making movies like that because they’re a nightmare to market to the public. If the movie’s plot can’t be condensed into something that can be easily explained in the span of a two-and-a-half minute trailer or a 30-second television commercial then it’s considered too much of a risk. Thus such high concept projects are often banished to that land of lost hope film fans know all too well as Development Hell. But from a conceptual standpoint, making a genre crossbreed can be easy as long as you provide a perfect balance between the genres you’re mixing. It’s no different than working with unstable chemicals or making mixed drinks; the very act is a complex science that can backfire horribly if you veer from the recipe in any way. Horror comedies are the easiest to screw up because most of them tend to favor one genre over the over, but the comedy has to be funny and the horror has to be frightening or both will fail miserably. Thankfully, Cowboys & Aliens gets the difficult formula correct because even without the science-fiction elements, it would still work as a strong western, but fortunately the otherworldly parts of the movie work great as well.

The movie, based on a graphic novel that was published long after the movie first entered the development phase, has five credited writers (Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman, Damon Lindelof, Mark Fergus, and Hawk Ostby), all with strong storytelling pedigrees: Fergus and Ostby wrote Children of Men and the original Iron Man; Lindelof co-created Lost and wrote the upcoming Prometheus, Ridley Scott’s long-awaited return to large scale science-fiction cinema; and Orci and Kurtzman are Hollywood’s new go-to team for writing summer blockbusters, having penned the first two Transformers movies and the 2009 J.J. Abrams-directed Star Trek. Not a bad team to have writing your movie, albeit at different times, but the variety of cooks in Cowboys & Aliens‘ proverbial kitchen can’t help but water down the overall impact of the story. The story still works fine as entertainment but we’re always getting hints of darkness in the characters and plot, particularly in Lonergan and Dolarhyde, that Favreau never seems to want to embrace but had the potential to lift the film into the realm of true greatness. Plot threads are abandoned just as soon as they start to make room for others that don’t work as well. I understand that in the face of certain annihilation people can put aside their differences, but you get the sense that there’s a thematically darker tale brewing beneath the surface of this slice of pulpy summer escapism.

But at least it’s good pulp escapism and Favreau’s cast mostly has a ball with their characters, thinly-sketched archetypes that the script has no time or patience to develop. If the director hadn’t chosen such a talented cast, the characters would have been easily exposed as less human than the Western-themed robots in Westworld. We get all the old western stand-bys: the crusty sheriff, the hard-drinking preacher, the cold-hearted cattle baron, the sexy barmaid, the glasses-wearing tenderfoot who’s never shot a gun before (but who soon proves to be a quick learner), and the deadly stranger with the mysterious past. In a role originally intended for Robert Downey Jr., Daniel Craig’s American accent is shaky but at least he doesn’t have much dialogue to make it noticeable and he makes for a fine leading man. Plus, he’s outfitted and filmed to look the part of a classic heroic figure. Harrison Ford attacks the role of Dolarhyde with a sawdust and tobacco-chewing relish he hasn’t shown in ages; I hope he takes on more grizzled old bastard roles like this in the future. Olivia Wilde is splendid eye candy but her character is little more than a lazy screenwriter’s invention, a walking exposition machine constantly telling us things that it would behoove the filmmakers to allow us to discover for ourselves. That wouldn’t be so bad considering we’re left to figure out the troubled pasts of some of the principal characters for ourselves.

The rest of the cast excels at the material they’re given: Keith Carradine, no stranger to Westerns as he’s appeared in Robert Altman’s McCabe and Mrs. Miller and Walter Hill’s The Long Riders (and played Wild Bill Hickok on the first five episodes of the late HBO series Deadwood), doesn’t just play the sheriff of Absolution; he inhabits the role like a second skin. If there were more preachers in the world like Clancy Brown’s Reverend Meacham then maybe I might be a more religious person. Sam Rockwell takes his part of the bog standard tenderfoot and makes him less of a bumbling dork and more of a man with a mission; his character arc is the one that has the most impact in the end. But I liked the relationship that develops between Ford and Noah Ringer and the one between him and the underrated Adam Beach that reveals itself piece by piece as the story progresses. The supporting cast is bolstered by small but memorable turns from Walton Goggins (The Shield), David O’Hara (Doomsday), Toby Huss (Reno 911), Raoul Trujillo (Apocalypto), and Buck Taylor (The Mist). Only Paul Dano, forever known as the hypocritical holy man Eli Sunday in Paul Thomas Anderson’s classic drama of oil and religion There Will Be Blood, comes up as the weakest link in the cast. It’s not entirely his fault; the character of Percy Dolarhyde is an annoying and spoiled little shit who deserves to be punched in the face. Fortunately for me, Lonergan does just that several times in the film and each time I cheered a little bit on the inside.

The aliens themselves look okay but are hardly the best work to come out of Industrial Light and Magic. I did like that instead of making them resemble every other alien creature Hollywood has yet shown us, down to the last detail these monsters from outer space look and act more like nightclub bouncers with the speed and temperament of rabid pitbulls. When their reason for coming to Earth in the first place was revealed I did one of the biggest eye rolls in my life. Without spoiling the plot let’s just say it reminded me a hell of a lot of a certain godawful story of alien invasion from about eleven years ago, starring a certain disco-dancing Scientologist.

The music by Harry Gregson-Williams (Kingdom of Heaven, Man on Fire) is alternately moody and adventurous and thus it works perfectly for the film, but it lacks the punch of the kind of score John Williams and Jerry Goldsmith were best known for in their respective heydays, the score Cowboys & Aliens so richly deserved. Matthew Libatique, who shot the Iron Man movies for Favreau and has worked repeatedly with filmmakers like Spike Lee and Darren Aronofsky, gives the film the look and feel of an old-fashioned big sky western and a Steven Spielberg alien invasion yarn (Spielberg served as an executive producer). The night scenes look infused with atmospheric natural light and the day scenes pop with color.

Oh yeah, I dug the hell out of Cowboys & Aliens, despite its occasionally glaring flaws. It’s not a perfect film by any stretch, but that’s not the kind of movie I went in expecting. Although the concept could have resulted in a classic of fantastic cinema in different hands, I was immensely satisfied with the film Jon Favreau made. On a scorching hot summer day I was able to beat the heat in the comfort of an air-conditioned movie theater with luxurious seats with an excellent slice of summer movie escapism big enough to fill the largest of cinema screens and make fans of sci-fi adventures and westerns smile with childish glee. Call it Independence Day on horseback, only much better.

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