Jon Favreau’s Cowboys & Aliens is a decidedly old-fashioned movie. Although the title drums up comic-book imagery and the special effects are the state of the current art, everything else about the film suggests it could have been made some 40 years ago, perhaps starring Steve McQueen in the Daniel Craig role and John Wayne in the Harrison Ford one. There are two genres here, one a western and one science fiction and both done with enough goofy b-movie ingenuity that we go along for the ride. This is a deeply silly picture but the trick is it pretends not to know this fact. There’s more fun to be had that way.
The film begins in 1873, with an amnesiac stranger (Daniel Craig) ambling into the town of Absolution. Absolution is one of those dingy little waystations that looks like it might just sink down into the Arizona earth and vanish. A sparse crop of citizens wander through the arid streets, steering clear of trigger-happy Percy Dolarhyde(Paul Dano) who carries on with the knowledge that his cattle baron daddy has the town in his pocket. There are classic western types all over the place; the kindly gun-toting preacher (Clancy Brown), the stoic sherrif (Keith Carradine) and a saloon owner named ‘Doc’ (Sam Rockwell) who has brought his beautiful wife to the middle of nowhere to make a go of it. Then of course, there’s Percy, and Nat Colorado (Adam Beach), the Native American man who the elder Dolarhyde (Ford) raised from a boy. Lurking about in the saloon is a wide-eyed damsel (Olivia Wilde) who knows more than she’s letting on. And, yes, for the Sunday afternoon crowd, there’s a kid and a dog too. No extra points for figuring out how far they make it.
The good news is that Favreau takes the time to make all of these people characters and we don’t mind so much that we recognize their traits because it’s great fun watching the way this set of actors rises to the occasion. Craig’s mystery man, whose real name is Jake, wakes up in the desert with an extraterrestrial trinket strapped to his arm. He’s lethal, no-nonsense, and apparently wanted for stagecoach robbery. Craig plays him with a variation on the rugged charm that he brought to his James Bond, mixing in token nods to classic western icons as varied as Gary Cooper and Clint Eastwood. He’s embraced Jake’s humanity and this supports the character when he’s knee-deep in the more fantastical elements of the story. The way he handles that fancy piece of weaponry is particularly entertaining—offering a fresh spin on the way a cowboy’s firearm defines his character.
Harrison Ford, for the first time in ages, seems to actually give a crap. His Col Dolarhyde is no less a cliché than the rest of the townsfolk, but Ford dials into his world-weary warrior’s heart and makes him both formidable and occasionally admirable. Ford’s awake, on edge, and using his well-worn book of tricks to make Dolarhyde his own brand of iconic. I’d love to see this character again, perhaps in a different story. Olivia Wilde has a role that develops into lady exposition and then later into lady gunslinger. She’s got an unearthly kind of beauty that makes sense for her role, but there’s no depth to the character. In an odd turn of events, her arc here directly mirrors her turn in last year’s Tron: Legacy.
One of the things I really enjoyed about Cowboys and Aliens is the way Favreau has peopled the edges of the film with sturdy character actors. Rockwell, like Gary Oldman before him, is welcome in any role because it can be expected he’ll put his own unique spin on it. Doc isn’t much of a hero, but the thing we most remember is his curious agnostic bent, even in the face of the ‘demons’ who arrive from the sky. There’s a graveside prayer that feels earnest and real and stands Doc apart. Beach has played a number of disenfranchised Native Americans over the years but here he’s doing a spin on the matinee vision of the ‘indian’. It’s good work and he has a fine chemistry with Ford. Keith Carradine and Clancy Brown are not nearly in enough stuff for my taste, and it’s good to see both escaped briefly from the SyFy ghetto to remind they are formidable and fascinating actors. Dano is just filling out his resume with a popcorn flick, but he’s good just the same—this younger Dolarhyde houses some of the same sniveling contempt that his boy preacher possessed in There Will Be Blood.
And then, what of the aliens? They come swooping out of the sky and into the town after the first half hour, cloaked in the darkness of night snatching up the inhabitants and whisking them off to an unknown location. We don’t see them at first, just their onslaught and the first time the night sky ignites with those unearthly lights, Favreau makes it’s a moment to savor. There’s a choreographed chaos perfectly timed to visually and thematically turn on its head what has, up to this point, been a traditional western adventure. However, it’s the science fiction part of this mash-up that gets short-changed. The alien invaders themselves are not exactly novel, and their origin is clearly not another planet but a drive-in cheapie from decades ago.
Goopy, malevolent monsters, they seem to have spawned from the same pod that has given birth to many recent alien incarnations; the Cloverfield beast, Super 8’s stringy critter, the invaders from both Skyline and Battle Los Angeles. All pincers, exoskeleton and luminescent, lanky tendrils, these extraterrestrials turn out to be nothing more than intergalactic prospectors with a penchant for demolishing and terrorizing the local indigenous. The parallels to our own history’s human behavior in the West isn’t forced, but it still reduces the intruders to a less specific and personal evil. None of them have identifiable personalities, and the most distinct is identified by a scar given to it by the hero.
What works better than the creatures is how their presence affects the world –and movie—they arrive in. Favreau uses this pervasive menace that threatens all people—pioneers, gunslingers, bandits, Apache, ranchers—in much the same way that Harry Turtledove employs his race of reptilian invaders in his alternate vision of World War II. It forces unlike entities to join together against a common threat. The best and most exciting image of the movie isn’t some special effects milieu, but the sight of a conjoined posse of all Western mainstays—cowboys, Indians, outlaws and lawmen—riding roughshod towards the alien stronghold.
Cowboys and Aliens is a simple concept and the execution is straight-forward. There’s no 3-D, no erratic camera work or hyper-stylized visual nonsense. Favreau knows the value of sweeping shots across dry brush land or craning panoramas of dusty streets and shabby saloons. Even the alien starship, embedded in the harsh desert earth, looks like a set piece from a 1950’s monster movie. The actors stare out from under wide-brim hats and look for nearby scenery to chew. The more familiar you are with the genre, the more fun it is. It’s not the best Western of the year (that’s still Rango and Meek’s Cutoff), and it’s not even the best alien vs. humans flick of the past summer (that would Attack the Block). What it does achieve is an earnest matinee joy that is hard to find these days. We are used to the big battles and crazy light shows. What’s more rewarding is arriving at that scene where the mysterious hero rides his horse down the quiet main street of the town and heads out towards the lonesome prairie.