Cowboys & Aliens
When I first saw the trailers for Cowboys & Aliens I was pretty excited. I am, generally speaking, a fan of genre mash-ups like this, because I think they breed all kinds of ground for mining creativity from cliché. On top of that, this film had a top-notch cast, and a director who’s work I’d previously enjoyed, so on paper this movie looked great. Then the reviews came out, and they were mixed at best, and so this went from a movie I intended to catch in the theaters, to yet another entry on The List of movies I planned to watch someday. Well, for Cowboys & Aliens that day has finally come, and I’m now a little sorry I waited so long. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that the movie is some sort of all-time great or anything. There are some definite problems with the writing, and the spoiler inherent in the title really sucks the life out of the first act.
The film begins with Daniel Craig waking up alone in the Arizona desert. He has a strange wound on his side, a mysterious metal bracelet on his wrist, and no idea who he is. After viciously killing the first people to pass him by, (they had assumed he might be a fugitive and were going to bring him into town in case there was a bounty,) Craig’s character steals their clothes and a horse and six-gun, then proceeds into town where he is soon discovered to be, in fact, a dangerous fugitive named Jake Lonergan. Along the way he has a cryptic/confusing conversation with local gun-toting hottie Ella Swenson (Olivia Wilde) and wins popular approval by showing-up Percy (Paul Dano), the spoiled son of the town’s leading citizen/cattleman/outlaw, Dolarhyde. With both Percy and Lonergan being packed into the U.S. Marshall’s wagon for trial in Tucson, Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford) shows up with his men to free his son and extract a debt from Lonergan. Finally, at this point, the thing we’ve all been waiting for happens, and a squadron of alien flying machines swoop into town. They start blowing things up, abducting townspeople, and generally causing a major freak-out for the 19th century Westerners. The people’s weapons are all proving to be completely useless against the alien craft, but with their approach Lonergan’s bracelet starts to light up, and expands into a weapon which he uses to successfully shoot down one of the alien machines. From there we have a plot, as Lonergan and Dolarhyde must form a posse including Ella, and a number of other townspeople who’s loved-ones were amongst the abducted.
As the plot progresses through an entertaining arc, we are treated to a number of familiar tropes from both the Western and Sci-Fi genres. One one hand, this could, I suppose, be viewed as tired and cliched, but I found it to be mostly fun. I won’t discuss this in much detail, as I think that part of the fun is sitting back and enjoying as various genre staples crop up; sometimes in interesting ways, though, not always. There are a couple times I thought, “well, I’m glad they included [blank] but I wish they’d found a more clever way to do it.” Overall though, I think it these things were handled well more often than not. There were also some issues with uneven character development, particularly in the relationship between Nat Colorado (Adam Beach) and his boss/pseudo-surrogate father Dolarhyde, but this is more of a minor quibble, since this isn’t really a character-driven movie. Maybe it could have been, but it isn’t.
While the writing is iffy, the acting is excellent. Ford does an excellent job in creating, in Dolarhyde, a completely different character than I’ve seen from him before. At times, I even forgot that I was watching the same actor who’d played Indiana Jones or Han Solo. Dolarhyde carries himself differently and talks differently, although I may have detected some of Mike Pomeroy’scrankiness. As great as Ford is it’s Daniel Craig that absolutely carries the film as Lonergan. He brings real feeling and emotional depth to what easily have been a stock action-hero role. I was also really impressed by Olivia Wilde, this was actually the first I’d actually seen of her. Somehow I’d gotten the impression that she was just another Hollywood hot-chick flavor-of-the-month, but she really brought life to a character that was basically two parts cliché and one part ridiculous, and really made Ella someone I cared about by the end.
All that said, this movie isn’t really a movie that needs to rely on clever writing or brilliant acting. It is, a the end of the day, an effects driven, action movie. An alien shoot-em-up that just happens to be set in the Old West. Fortunately, the effects are really well done, and the aliens are actually far-better realized than many other movie monsters. Their motivations, once explained, go beyond some sort of generic “they’re here to eat us all” type logic, and actually stand up to at least some degree of scrutiny.
This really is a fun movie. It’s not particularly quotable, (I really had a hard time coming up with a decent poster-quote above,) but it’s exciting, and does a decent job of mixing up two different flavors of the familiar to create something new, and I think the film deserves credit for that. Is it a great movie? Most certainly not. However, it is most certainly a good movie. Far better, I think, than the film’s initial muddled reception lead me to believe. It’s definitely well worth seeing.