If this has been the summer or the year of the “good, but not great” movie, Cowboys & Aliens stands just a bit taller than most. It wears its spurs a little prouder. It slings its gun a little faster.
Whichever metaphor you prefer, Jon Favreau has crafted a loving new vision of the Western genre that delivers far better on character than the average summer blockbuster. At the very least, it works more on making the people on screen matter, even when sci-fi spectacle could have (and maybe should have) taken the reins.
Jake (Daniel Craig) wakes up in the desert having lost his memory but gained an alien weapon strapped to his arm. When he’s arrested in the town of Absolution alongside Percy (Paul Dano), the sniveling son of wealthy landowner Woodrow Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford), the pair are ready for transport when the community is attacked by beings from another world. Their kin are taken, and they round up a posse to get them back.
The opening scene establishes Jake as a man who speaks with his fists, and the rest of the film is a test in re-discovering who he is, even if the person he finds isn’t the best example of humanity. Ford’s Dolarhyde mirrors that sensibility as a gruff presence that commands the town like he did his Civil War regiment. They’ve both seen their fair share of killing, and they carry those wounds and talents with them into battle here.
What works best about the film is the sense of scope that’s provided. It’s an ensemble that gives great actors a shorter space to make an impact, but everyone from Sam Rockwell as the cowardly barkeep to Clancy Brown as the tough-as-nails town preacher achieve that with ease. The landscape is sprawling and picturesque enough to resemble The Searchers, and the Western genre tropes are all firmly in place even when they’re being delivered with a twist (the stampede of horses during the first UFO attack is a nice touch).
The Western is a genre rooted in so many conventions that making one is a matter of delivering them while trying to create something different or timely, and Favreau has absolutely done that here. He slid a note over to John Ford that said, “Do you like me? Check yes or no,” and the long-dead director checked yes.
So what about the aliens? That’s a stickier situation. It’s the kind of science fiction film where the aliens are faceless, nameless intruders who must be stopped at all cost. They are a vision of evil, and they’re used to solid horror effect early on. In fact, there’s a tense scene that borrows a lot from Alien featuring the well-designed baddies and the young Emmet Taggart (Noah Ringer) who is on the journey both to find his grandfather and to reflect Dolarhyde’s own bad fatherly relationship.
Unfortunately, the story suffers from two key choices that drag it down a bit. The first is turning the second act into an adventure where the posse meets up with different groups (the local Native American tribe and what’s left of Jack’s gang) in order to get them to band together to fight. The sequences provide some interesting elements, but they seem out of place and rushed compared to the patience Favreau shows for the first half hour. They are overlong introductions to new characters that should have been chopped to make way for the others to get some development.
The second decision is actually a great one, but it shapes the story in a major way that’s ultimately problematic. Unlike aliens who are allergic to water or the common cold, Favreau wanted to create a realistic battle at the end where the white hats have a decent shot against the black hats (aliens wear hats, right?). As such, the climax just doesn’t feel all that big. Sadly, for a movie that places so much emphasis on scope in the beginning, it keeps getting tighter and tighter until it’s all but lost at the end. There’s never a wow factor here, but the potential was always there for it.
That may have been on purpose. A major theme of the film is community coming together, strangers becoming friends and the world getting a little bit smaller, but if it’s a theme that was matched by tone, it’s one that did a disservice to the adventure element. Digging deeper into the dirt, the movie seems like a direct allegory to the settlers’ relationship to the land and the Native Americans. Or any invading force, for that matter. That element isn’t brought into focus more clearly than with Dolarhyde’s tenuous relationship with hired hand Nat (played fantastically well by Adam Beach). If you couldn’t tell by now, Harrison Ford’s character is the only one who gets a genuine arc, but Craig and Olivia Wilde (who plays The Woman With No Name (who happens to be named Ella)) get an unusual romance and enough clever lines and action to get the adrenaline pumping.
That’s the ultimate point. It’s clear that everyone involved is having a lot of fun by taking some potentially silly material seriously. The script itself could have been rewritten with a different villain, and it would have been about as straightforward a Western as they come, but there’s something truly entertaining about that – the barroom fistfight, the horse-to-moving-object leap of faith, never losing your hat. Craig is so damned cool that you can’t help but watch him, and Wilde matches him beat for beat.
Ultimately, it’s the cast and the love letters of Jon Favreau that make this a wondrously fun venture into a beat-up mining town surrounded by a sky-sized postcard. It’s engaging and well-acted, but they should have brought more coal with them, because it loses steam heading toward the end of the station. It’s a fun movie, but like a lot of its peers, Cowboys & Aliens is really good, but not great.
The Upside: Solid Western material, some good alien horror sequences, great design, stellar acting, wonderful direction and cinematography (from Matthew Libatique)
The Downside: A weakened second act that limps into the third
On the Side: Screenwriter Todd Farmer had a similar concept years ago and came close to working on this project, a story he retells in fascinating detail for anyone who loves What Might Have Happened.