What They Say:
In 1873 Arizona, a loner named Jake Lonergan (Daniel Craig) awakens with no memory of his past and a mysterious shackle around his wrist. He enters the town of Absolution where he learns that he is a notorious criminal wanted by many people, including Colonel Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford), who rules the town with an iron fist. Absolution soon faces an even greater threat when alien spaceships attack the town. While his shackle holds the key to defeating the aliens, Lonergan must ally with Dolarhyde and other former enemies to make a stand against them.
Cowboys and Aliens is one of those movies that has a lengthy history to it as its moved through its production life cycle with so people attached to it that in a lot of ways it’s a surprise that it ever got made without a complete rebuild from the ground up. With something like five primary writers attached to the credits here, it’s certainly worrying to the more detailed oriented, it has the potential to be so disjointed and conflicted that it could be a trainwreck from the first frame. In fact, reading over some other reviews of the film that are hugely negative, I get the feeling that these kinds of influences made the movie impossible for them to really just watch it.
The premise is pretty simple from the title as it blends cowboys and aliens into the late 1800′s and proceeds to add in some Indians as well to make sure nobody feels left out. The feature revolves around a man who wakes up without knowing his name, how he got there in the middle of the wild lands or much of anything else. He has something mechanical on his wrist that looks more like bindings than anything else, but it’s obvious it’s something more. His return to civilization is a bit dangerous, more so for those he runs into than for him, but it also puts him into a frontier town where there’s plenty of issues, mostly stemming from the fact that one cattle man named Dolarhyde has sizable influence there. And naturally, the man with no name who is soon discovered to be Jake Lonergan, comes into conflict with him through an encounter with Dolarhyde’s son Percy who is just stupidly cruel and arrogant because of his father’s position.
Within Jake’s introduction to the town, we get to meet a variety of people who serve as fodder for what’s to come on both sides. While both Jake and Percy end up in a fair bit of trouble, it all goes to hell when the aliens swoop in and start wrangling people from the streets in the middle of the night. This sets the quest side of the film as after Jake manages to shoot one of them down with the thing on his wrist, he ends up working through remembering his past and helping the rest of those that survived to go after the aliens to try and find the missing loved ones. Putting the adversaries into the position of having to help each other is a straightforward approach, and in the end it does work fairly well here as the cowboys deal with some stagecoach robbers and Indians in order to stop the aliens. In the end, you could easily swap the aliens out for anything else, such as rustlers, other criminals or something else with just a simple rewrite.
The premise for the film is definitely simple but I found it to work pretty well, though of course you get the gist of the whole film in a way just from the title so there isn’t a surprise in that regard. It could easily be a huge comedy, and in a way that would be an easier film to make. Going the serious route, with the right bits of humor mixed in, is definitely harder because you have to suspend a different kind of disbelief. The casting of the film pretty much hits all the right notes out of the gate. Daniel Craig certainly has the man with no name vibe going and offers a character that you could easily feel could go either way with his past, from being a real scoundrel of a bad guy to a good guy caught up in the wrong things. Where he gets to play the best though is when it comes to working with Harrison Ford as Dolarhyde. While there is the obvious bit of overacting going on here, it fits within a lot of the older Western films out there that were used as a style guide of sorts with producer Steven Spielberg working them over with. It’s a more traditional approach to the role rather than some of the more darkly serious types we’ve had in the last ten or fifteen years.
The pair definitely helps to keep the movie moving, especially since they opt overall to work together and without any real fuss in short order, knowing they both have larger goals to deal with rather than petty grudges with each other. The supporting cast helps it along the way as well, notably with Adam Beach as the son that Dolarhyde never really had and Olivia Wilde as the mysterious stranger that gets caught up in everything alongside them. She’s the odd man out here overall as her real goals aren’t clear for quite awhile, and that keeps you guessing a bit which is a definite plus. She and Craig have a fairly interesting relationship, especially as it avoids the usual romantic entanglements and instead keeps it mildly burning at times rather than fully acted upon. The situation they’re in takes precedence over everything else and it’s refreshing to see the relationship side accurately put on the backburner.
The main issue I had with the film came down to the aliens themselves. Unfortunately, as science fiction has (not) progressed, aliens are still the great weak link. We either get the humanoid types that are cold and effective, aloof and whatnot, or we get the primal types. Here, we get the primal types with a goal (that admittedly makes a certain amount of sense) but it comes with the caveat that it’s hard to imagine this race acquiring space travel. And beyond that, even if they managed to swipe it from someone else, they aren’t the types to maintain it. And why is clothing only a human option? Really? I mean, they may travel the stars, fly ships and so forth, but even with them all looking identical for the most part (another cop out), why must they all run around naked. Surely man is not the only creature in this vast universe that will come up with the concept of clothes. The aliens never appear smart in the film and that helps to maintain them in a way that keeps them from being threatening. During one scene where there’s a small group of them going after Craig in a tunnel, they continue to just throw themselves at him even though he has one of their weapons. Over and over and over.
Though I gripe, I have to admit that I did find this to be a fairly fun ride as it worked through the classic tropes of the Western under the guidance of Favreau. As much as I like him though, he does not have a good eye for vistas here as the landscape is very poorly used to create atmosphere and mood. It’s simply just another basic prop in the arsenal rather than a key ingredient. The story works in a straightforward manner but the cast is what made it fun. They don’t exactly chew the scenery, but they’re going with it and enjoying it. And while some reviewers have gone on about how you never care for the characters or know anything about them, I find that to be an odd angle to work with. The slow exploration of Jake’s past works well and Dolarhyde himself turns out to be quite an interesting character and has some very good influences on others he wasn’t even aware of. The movie flows quickly, hits a lot of good notes with the action and has a solid cast but it hits some wonky moments when it comes to how the aliens interact with everything and the continually stupid things they do.