Three things make Cowboys & Aliens a sure-fire, popcorn-gumption summer movie: Harrison Ford, Daniel Craig, and it shies away from the lackluster graphic novel it’s based on. Grimy tough cowboys, vile aliens, and noble Indians go head on in rousing, mixed-genre action after outlaw Jake Lonergan (Daniel Craig) wakes up with a Clint Eastwood glare, no memory, and a very useful weapon wrapped around one arm.
Mixed genre meandering between Westerns and science fiction isn’t new: Gene Autry tackled invaders from the underground nation of Murania in 1935’s The Phantom Empire, along with a robot, a few musical interludes, and ray-guns. There aren’t any robots or musical numbers in Cowboys & Aliens, and the time period is Arizona in the 1870s. The invaders come from outer space instead of inner space, although they do bury their mining ship deep to extract gold, and as Ella (Olivia Wilde) says, they look on humans as we would insects. She should know since she’s also an alien (no spoiler here, it’s telegraphed loud and clear the minute she appears). Her race was decimated by these gold-loving, vivisecting monstrosities with their surprise-- coming-out-from-where?-- appendages. As bug-eyed, mucousy, multi-limbed, naked alien creatures with advanced technology go--this motif is becoming as old as the Western hills--they at least provide a bona fide threat to the townspeople of dusty Absolution, and are more tension-building than the graphic novel's more cartoony predators.
In his review, Roger Ebert mentions that if you take away the aliens you’d still have a good Western movie. He’s right. At its core, Cowboys & Aliens brings to its rugged terrain the tried and true: the ornery cattleman making his own law; his out of control son bullying townspeople; an honorable sheriff upholding the law though it could get him killed; a struggling, tender footed saloon keeper who doesn’t carry a gun but needs to; the common-sense, steady as a rock preacher (the intimidating Clancy Brown from The Burrowers); and the notorious outlaw regretting his past deeds as soon as he remembers them. The shaggy dog and worried kid round out this home on the range.
Harrison Ford's Woodrow Dolarhyde is gruff, civil war weary, and bitter, providing lots of room for potential soul-searching growth, especially with his son Percy (Paul Dano). He and Lonergan lock horns over stolen gold, but a strafing run by marauding spaceships brings everyone quickly and reluctantly together. Percy and townspeople are lassoed by the small ships and whisked away until Lonergan's weapon activates. A posse is formed to go after one alien that escapes from its downed ship. The trail leads them to an upside down riverboat steamer--far from a body of water-- where they spend the night to get out of the rain. The alien attacks, making the posse a lot leaner.
Needing more help, Lonergan seeks out his former gang, but they aren't happy to see him after he absconded with Dolarhyde's gold coins from their coach robbery. Another attack by the aliens saves Lonergan but brings in the Apaches, who are uniquely persauded by Ella to provide a medicinal remedy for his amnesia, which brings a heap of guilt and remorse as he remembers, along with the location of the alien mothership he had escaped from. Everyone saddles up for the showdown with the Apaches taking the high ground, the cowboys taking the low ground, and Lonergan heading into the mothership to rescue the townsfolk.
As current horror and science fiction movies would have it, the aliens are tough as rawhide, pug-ugly, much stronger, and they fight hand to hand (they've got a lot of them) without using any of their advanced weaponry. Jon Favreau captures enough of the tumbling tumbleweed desolation and the stable of writers (7 plus!) behaved well enough to capture Wild West grit.
I think Louis L'Amour would have liked it, although I personally think adding a Gatling gun alien mow down would have made it a hog killin' time to the manor born for sure.
You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.