Western and sci-fi films. Although most would like to forget, the two genres have crossed paths before. In 1990, Marty McFly traveled back in time to 1885 to rescue Doc Brown and bring him back to good old 1985 in the final installment of the Back to the Future series, and nine years later, Will Smith and Kevin Kline stop an ex-Confederate scientist from destroying the United States with Jon Peters’ giant pet robot spider in Wild Wild West (see An Evening with Kevin Smith for Jon Peters reference). With those two films heavily panned by critics and moviegoers, it takes another flash forward to 2011 before director Jon Favreau’s Cowboys and Aliens wrangles up Harrison Ford and Daniel Craig to fight off an alien invasion in an attempt to triumph over those two aforementioned films and crown an undisputed champion in this spliced category. Not exactly a hard fight to win, but disappointingly Cowboys and Aliens only manages to walk away with a TKO.
Jake Lonergan (Daniel Craig, Casino Royale) wakes up in the desert with no memory of who he is or where he’s been. A strange mechanical bracelet is locked to his left wrist and everyone is trying to capture or kill him for being a wanted man. As he tries to piece together his fragmented brain, he settles in a small upstart town where a man named Woodrow Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford, Extraordinary Measures) is the backbone of the economy. When Dolarhyde hears that Lonergan is in his town, he seeks retribution for crimes supposedly perpetrated by Lonergan, who cannot remember if he is guilty of such accusations. Everything then comes to a standstill as flying machines invade the town and snatch up townspeople like they are cattle. The aliens’ presence activates Lonergan’s bracelet and proves to be the only weapon capable of substantial firepower against them. The cowboys put away their differences amongst one another and their human adversaries to fight a common enemy as they try to rescue their loved ones and rid themselves of this new and deadly threat.
If actor/director Jon Favreau ever lived in the old west himself, he would certainly never be labeled as “yella.” Whether you’re a fan of his work or not, the guy takes plenty of gambles in his career, which so far have paid off in spades. In his latest “double down,” Favreau tries to successfully mesh a serious western with a science fiction, extra terrestrial flick.
In a microcosm, Cowboys and Aliens is the Citizen Kane of this Frankenstein genre. The film actually does convey the tone of a serious western before all of the alien madness begins. The only problem is that Favreau might have opened the film too well. The aliens seem to have ruined what could have been an even better movie. Great westerns rest heavily on deep and rich characters and intense nerve-racking standoffs, whether they are exchanging bullets, words, or even glares. With its first-class cast, this film has the inherent components to pull off such a story, but just when things start to get good, aliens show up with their photon guns blazing and erase all the great, pent-up drama. Instead of propelling each other, the colliding of these two genres inhibits either one from ever reaching their apex, like an infinite game of tic-tac-toe.
The plot drags slowly through the middle as the two genres intertwine, culminating in a more violent Independence Day-esque type of climax. The script takes more and more liberties as to just how vulnerable the aliens are to the cowboys’ gunfire, wavering in believability on the effectiveness a small army can have against such a technologically and physically advanced species. And although very plausible, the entire reason for the alien’s presence on Earth is explained in a very lazy manner.
In a purely visual aspect, the aliens are surprisingly original. Creating a monstrous alien that actually raises the brow of jaded audiences is a victory in itself. They are actually scary, noting specifically that they are not the cookie cutter, faceless, oversized reptiles that have become the default in the industry. They’re able evoke fear through expression as well as physical prowess.
The only thing that stops a film with a title like Cowboys and Aliens from getting thrown right into the “straight to DVD” pile is when names like Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford are attached to it. Craig and Ford have chemistry on screen together without even saying a word. It’s almost a shame that the duo had to team up to fight aliens instead of playing out their original conflict. Ford plays a different kind of hero in this film, one that the audience is never quite sure they even like until the very end. And few actors say as much with a blank expression as Daniel Craig, which works phenomenally in a western or action setting. He’s just has that intangible badass tone to him and actually says more with less dialogue.
The supporting cast is filled with actors that would have been great characters but did not get enough screen time due to the whole fighting aliens thing, including Olivia Wilde (Tron: Legacy) as Ella Swenson, Sam Rockwell (Iron Man 2) as Doc, Keith Carradine (Dexter) as Sheriff Taggart, Paul Dano (Knight and Day) as Percy Dolarhyde and Clancy Brown (The Shawshank Redemption) as Preacher Meacham. They all get pigeon crumbs of backstory, which does add to the plot, but overall these characters feel mostly hallow and incomplete.
Cowboys and Aliens may be its own worst enemy, but it’s still intriguing to watch two of the most classic categories of characters in the history of film interact. And even with all of its flaws, in no way is the film a lost cause. It just comes off as more of a prototype. Perhaps after this type of film is reworked over and over again, it would evolve into something really incredible, scaling back the alien presence and using it only to further enhance an already powerful western storyline.
Replay Value: 6.5
Total = 6.7 out of 10