The Scoop: 2011 PG-13, directed by Jon Favreau and starring Daniel Craig, Harrison Ford, Olivia Wilde, Adam Beach, Sam Rockwell, Clancy Brown, and Paul Dano.
Tagline: First Contact. Last Stand.
Summary Capsule: It’s the Wild West versus nasty friggin’ aliens.
Deneb’s Review: Frequently in the life of a fan of cult cinema, a sad but inescapable truth is encountered. Said truth is simple and direct – namely, that a lot of people don’t like the same stuff that you do.
This is not inherently bad, of course. After all, it takes all types to make a world, which would be dull if we all thought the same, and associated clichés like that. But drat it all, there are times when I wonder if I’ve seen the same film as everyone else. I mean, how can something that everybody seems to be lambasting give me genuine enjoyment unless it’s good? And if it’s good, then why do all those other people seem to hate it so much?
Sadly, it doesn’t look like those questions will ever be answered. All we can do is keep on enjoying the films we enjoy, and hope that one day all those haters will see the light – or, for those of us who dig the schadenfreude, one of their favorites will be hated by us. They’ll know our pain then, by Godfrey!
One of these polarizing films – and probably the most recent that I’ve encountered – is Cowboys and Aliens, the one I’m reviewing today. So let’s get to it.
The film is set in Arizona in 1873. As it opens, a man (Daniel Craig) wakes up in the desert. He’s got a wound in his side, a photograph of a woman, and a strange metal bracelet around one wrist that won’t come off. What he doesn’t have is his memory – he has no idea who he is or how he got here.
Needing medical attention for his wound, the man heads for the nearest town, the small settlement of Absolution. There he quickly discovers two things – first, he knows how to handle himself in a fight, and second, his name’s Jake Lonergan and he’s a wanted criminal, a revelation which quickly leads to him cooling his heels in a holding cell.
He’s not the only one in there, though. See, Absolution is more or less ruled by one Colonel Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford), the local cattle baron, and his idiot son Percy (Paul Dano) just got arrested for making a nuisance of himself. Not a political move on the part of the Sheriff (Keith Carradine), but hey, the law’s got to be upheld.
Dolarhyde doesn’t care about all that, though. He wants his son back, and he’s ready and willing to cause trouble to get what he wants. The situation is about to get nasty when… well, things suddenly get very strange very quickly.
Just as Dolarhyde has come riding into town with his boys, another bunch of troublemakers make their presence felt – aliens! Aliens in spaceships! Aliens in spaceships that make with the zappy-zappy! They blow the living succotash out of Absolution, abduct a generous handful of its inhabitants, then head for the hills.
Now naturally this changes the whole situation. Nobody has the slightest idea what just happened, but they do know that their loved ones have been kidnapped, and they aim to get ‘em back. A posse is quickly formed, and the Colonel wants Lonergan to come along. See, it turns out that that bracelet on his wrist is actually an energy weapon of some sort, and so far is the only thing that’s proved effective against the aliens – six-guns just don’t cut it in a situation like this.
Lonergan, however, isn’t having any of it. He’s got lost memories to chase down, and he doesn’t have time to spare on a rescue mission. Meanwhile, he keeps being followed around by one Ella Swenson (Olivia Wilde), a mysterious young woman who claims that the key to the whole situation is inside Jake’s head, if he’ll only try and find it.
Inevitably, the two of them do eventually join the posse, and everyone heads out after the aliens. But how can they fight such a powerful enemy? How did that bracelet end up on Jake’s wrist? And just what does Ella know that she’s not telling?
If I had to hazard a guess as to why Cowboys and Aliens has so far been unpopular, it would probably be that people were expecting a game-changing movie, and were disappointed when it fell short of such. Personally though, I think they’re being too picky. Cowboys and Aliens may not be a game-changer, but it is a film that plays the game very, very well, and might indeed change it if people were willing to give it a chance.
The key to why it works, I think, is that the filmmakers didn’t try to make the two separate genres it dips into mesh completely. They’re too different; it can’t be done without creating a third genre entirely. Instead, what they basically did was to make a good western film in the classic style, have aliens invade it, and then carry on in the same vein. Take the aliens out of the formula, you’d still have a good western film, it’d just be a very different one.
Speaking of the aliens, one of the complaints I’ve heard about them is that they seem out of place. Newsflash, people – they’re supposed to seem that way. They’re aliens. Moreover, they’re aliens in a setting that is particularly alien to aliens, if you get my meaning.
OK, I guess that does require some explanation. Most alien-invasion films take place during the modern day, or close to it, and when the BEMs swoop down in their flying saucers, the reaction can be panic, horror, elation, what have you, but it’s always a comprehendible reaction. In other words, they’re going “holy crap, it’s aliens!” In Cowboys and Aliens, on the other hand, their reaction is more along the lines of “what the hell is going on?” Remember, this takes place in a period when science fiction as we think of it was just getting started and had yet to become a popular genre – War of the Worlds wouldn’t be published for another thirty-odd years yet. As a result, the characters basically have no comprehension of what these creatures are or where they’ve come from. The term “alien” is never uttered once during the whole movie – the first thing the people of Absolution think of is not aliens, but demons. They do eventually get a clearer picture of their unwelcome visitors, but their overall mood throughout most of the movie is of baffled incomprehension and fear. They have no context in which to place these things, and since we’re seeing things through their eyes, neither do we. And frankly, I think that was a very clever way of doing it. It preserves the mystery around them, and keeps us wanting more – not an easy thing in a genre where extraterrestrials are a dime a dozen.
Of course, all of this would be for naught if the aliens themselves didn’t live up to expectations. Thankfully, they do – or at any rate, they did for me. These creatures are freaky. They’re these great big roaring things that look something like a combination between a frog and a gorilla with the skin of a crab and a few other nasty little surprises that I won’t go into, because they’re worth discovering for yourself. Bullets barely slow these guys down, and they can more or less pulp you with a single blow. Sure, they may not be as outright monstrous as, say, one of the titular critters from the Alien films, but for my money, they’re plenty creepy enough. At any rate, you can certainly understand why they give the cowboys the collywobbles.
Speaking of the cowboys, I guess I should start talking about them, shouldn’t I? The main character of the film, of course, is Jake Lonergan, and he’s rather an interesting one, too. The whole ‘wakes up with amnesia’ thing is getting a little long in the tooth at this point, but it’s handled a bit differently here than in most versions. Daniel Craig plays Lonergan as the strong, silent type, someone for whom losing his memory is more of an inconvenience than anything else. In many films the amnesia victim falls prey to panic and desperation, but not this guy. He’s one tough hombre whether or not he knows who he is, and while finding out the details is obviously a bit of a priority for him, he’s not going to freak out about it – he’s just going to do it.
This also explains why he can come off as a bit unfeeling at times. It’s not that he’s a jerk or anything; it’s just that his own issues are of paramount importance to him at the moment. He does have a heart under that leathery exterior, and he’ll help you out if you’re in trouble, but in the meantime, he’s got business to work out. He’s definitely the hero of the movie, but he’s not the type to play White Knight – which arguably makes him a good deal more realistic than a lot of movie protagonists, regardless of the zappy-bracelet.
Doing an equally good job is Harrison Ford, who is clearly relishing the opportunity to play someone other than a heroic lead for once. In some ways, his Colonel Dolarhyde is a more interesting character than Craig’s (narratively speaking, anyway). In any other movie, he’d be the villain – and indeed, when we first meet him, that’s basically who he is. But over the course of the film we gradually find out a bit more about this guy, and learn what kind of a man he really is, and how he came to be that way. Sure, he never exactly becomes nice – he’s a crusty old bastard with a sharp tongue whose default mode is to snarl at people, and he pretty much stays that way throughout the movie – but he does at least become sympathetic, and you start to understand just how he earned his high rank and position of power in the first place, whether or not it’s subsequently been abused. It’s sort of like The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp as applied to a typical Wild West villain – only with him as a supporting character, and still kind of a jerk, and with aliens. And without the whole flashback thing. So not really all that much like The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp. But similar. Sort of.
Moving on now.
As for the others, they’re all pretty good. Olivia Wilde is a little detached-seeming, but it fits her character perfectly, so I don’t really mind. Anyway, she and Craig have good chemistry together, which is important, so no complaints here. Sam Rockwell plays Doc, local saloon-owner and pacifist, who has to reconsider his views on violence after his wife gets nabbed by the aliens. Doc in and of himself is less than revelatory – he’s basically a stock Western character – but Rockwell has some fun with him, and he works well in the context of the story, so again, no complaints. Also, Clancy Brown has a good (if brief) role as Meacham, Absolution’s weary preacher/sawbones, who espouses a version of religion that is more personal philosophy than dogma. He’s an interesting character, and while he ultimately doesn’t affect matters a whole lot, I would have liked to have seen more of him.
Really, though, the focus here is not so much on the characters as it is on the overall battle of wills between the wild westerners and the invaders from outer space. That’s fine, though – I’d still say it’s character-driven, but you don’t watch a movie called Cowboys and Aliens for the deep and involving character studies. You watch it for cowboys going up against freakin’ aliens, and in that sense it delivers in spades. There are some good characters here, but it makes perfect sense for them to fade into the background when what’s going on in the foreground is far more interesting.
As is always the case, the movie ain’t perfect. As I said, the basic non-alien-related story is that of a western, and a good one, but not a particularly innovative one. It hits all the right marks, but you can’t really say it goes beyond them. Also, of course, the fact that there are a number of people out there who don’t like the film brings an automatic disclaimer to the table, as there’s always the chance that you, the reader, might turn out to be one of these people. Make of that what you will.
Personally, though, I do like Cowboys and Aliens, and I’m not afraid to say so. It spins a good yarn, it does it with style, it has snazzy visuals and icky alien critters, and there’s even a plot twist or two that I honestly didn’t see coming. Like they say on the ‘Net, “Haters gonna hate”. I’ll just carry on enjoying my weird little movies, thank you very much.
Now then – draw, stranger. An’ if’n you’ve got yer shootin’-iron on your wrist already, then you gotta let me take the first shot. That’s only fair.
- The portrayal of the aliens was loosely based on the ancient Babylonian Annunaki pantheon of gods, as interpreted by author Zechariah Sitchin.
- Harrison Ford had initially intended to go bareheaded during the film, as he didn’t want the audience to associate his character with his famously hat-wearing role in the Indy films. He was eventually persuaded otherwise, but the filmmakers did make sure to make Ford’s hat very distinct from his Indy fedora. (He does go bareheaded on one of the posters.)
- The aliens’ initial entrance is a clear visual reference to Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
- Jon Favreau repeatedly clashed with studio executives who wanted the movie to be in 3-D, as he firmly believed that westerns should only be shot on film in the traditional manner. Thankfully, he got his way in the end.
Meacham: Only two kinds of men get shot – criminals and victims. Well, which one are ya?
Lonergan: I don’t know.
Meacham: Ya got a name, friend?
Lonergan: I don’t know that, either.
Meacham: Well, just what do you know?
Ella: I need to know where you came from.
Lonergan: So do I.
Doc: Why don’t you just sing a song or somethin’? Cook some beans, do somethin’ useful.
Lonergan: You been there long?
Dolarhyde: Well, that’s just ridiculous. What are they gonna do, buy somethin’?
Meacham: God don’t care who you were, son – only who you are.
Lonergan: We were flying.
Lonergan: I don’t wanna do that again.
Dolarhyde: What is that thing?
Lonergan: Why are you askin’ me?
Dolarhyde: ‘Cause you shot it!
Ella: If it’s all the same, I’d like to ride along, too.
Meacham: Yes, ma’am. (to himself) We’ve got a kid and a dog, why not a woman?
Dolarhyde: Now I’m a guest? I thought I was a prisoner! What the hell am I?
Dolan: What’s that?
Lonergan: Demons took your gold. When you get to hell, you can ask for it back.
Doc: Faith? Yeah, God’s been real swell to me. I don’t mean no disrespect, preacher, but either he ain’t up there, or he don’t like me very much.
Lonergan: What I’m sayin’ is you got a choice. You can drink your last few hours away on a beach – which, by the way, is not a bad idea – or you can follow me one last time.
If you liked this movie, try these:
- Just about any classic Western
- Certain select aspects of The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (which you all should see in any case; it’s a classic)