Cowboys & Aliens


Cowboys & Aliens

If these townsfolk had seen Battlestar: Gallactica they'd be running and screaming by now.

(2011) Sci-Fi Western (DreamWorks/Universal) Daniel Craig, Harrison Ford, Olivia Wilde, Sam Rockwell, Adam Beach, Paul Dano, Noah Ringer, Keith Carradine, Clancy Brown, Ana de la Reguera, Abigail Spencer, Toby Huss, Walton Goggins, Raoul Trujillo. Directed by Jon Favreau

We all know that stagecoaches belong in Westerns and starships in Sci-Fi movies and never the twain shall meet. Why that is, I’m not sure – but at last the twain have actually met.

A stranger (Craig) wakes up in the badlands of the New Mexico territory circa 1873. He has no idea where he is and no memory of who he is. He also has a strange shackle on his wrist and a strange wound in his side that is still bleeding but half-cauterized. He is immediately beset by a trio of bounty hunters but apparently he knows how to fight and he definitely knows how to kill, besting the three of them, stealing their clothes, their gold, one of their horses and their dog.

He rides into the town of Absolution, and enters a house on the outskirts to freshen up. The owner of the house, Preacher Meacham (Brown) takes exception to this but eventually warms up to the lost lamb and helps stitch up his wound.

Later on, Percy Dolarhyde (Dano) goes on a drunken rampage shooting up the town, despite attempts by Nat Colorado (Beach), the right-hand man of Percy’s father to placate him, and the pleas for clemency by saloon owner Doc (Rockwell) and his wife Maria (De la Reguera). That’s Doc’s wife, not Percy’s by the way.

Percy accidentally shoots a sheriff’s deputy and the stranger eventually subdues him. Sheriff Taggart (Carradine) recognizes the stranger from a wanted poster; he’s Jake Lonergan, a notorious stagecoach bandit and murderer. Taggart’s attempts to capture Lonergan appear to be going south when a mysterious beautiful woman, Ella Swenson (Wilde) clocks Lonergan with a 2×4 and knocks him cold.

Meanwhile, Percy’s father, Colonel Woodrow Dolarhyde (Ford) is investigating some of his cattle who have been burned along with his men who have gone missing when word reaches him that his son has been arrested. The wealthy and powerful Colonel Dolarhyde rides into town with Nat and a posse of his men to go take his son out of custody and also to remove Lonergan, who had most recently stolen a shipment of Dolarhyde’s gold. ¬†

Things are just about to get ugly when they are interrupted by the appearance of strange lights in the sky. Those lights turn out to be alien spaceships which launch concussive fireballs into the town, knocking over buildings but harming nobody. That might be because the aliens are abducting the townspeople, including Percy, Maria and Sheriff Taggart. The day is saved somewhat by Lonergan, whose shackle hides a weapon that takes down one of the alien ships. It turns out that is the only effective weapon against them, so when Colonel Dolarhyde wants to go rescue his son and the other townspeople, he insists that Lonergan go with them.

Lonergan has no such plan however and rides off on his own to find out who he is and why he has this metal doo-hickey on his wrist. The secret of his identity may rest with the mysterious Ella and the mystery of who Jake Lonergan is and what happened to him may hold the key to saving the world from these nasty aliens.

Favreau is currently riding high as one of comicdom’s fan favorites on the strength of Iron Man and its sequel. While his latest film is ostensibly based on the Platinum Studios comic of the same name, in reality it shares little in common besides the title.

Favreau had originally wanted to cast Robert Downey Jr. in the lead role but when he had to bow out to work on Sherlock Holmes: Game of Shadows Daniel Craig was cast instead and a fine bit of luck that was. Craig is far better at the Eastwood-like mysterious stranger than I think Downey would have been and he interacts with Ford in a much more believable manner.

Having Ford and Craig as your leads in a Western is about as fortuitous casting as it gets. Ford in particular is gruff and curmudgeonly, snarling and barking like a dog but having something of a puppy heart deep down. Craig, James Bond aside, is an excellent action hero and while Favreau has characterized Ford as the modern John Wayne, I think a case could be made for Craig as a modern Gary Cooper as well.

Overall, the cast is pretty nifty with Brown taking high marks as the Preacher who may look like a missing cough drop brother but has a surprisingly modern take on faith. Dano gets some of the best comic bits as the sniveling son of the wealthy rancher (a clich√© that he helped make palatable here) and Wilde is surprisingly good as the mysterious woman – I hadn’t seen much of her work but now I’ll definitely be looking forward to seeing more of her in future roles. Beach is one of my favorite character actors ever since he emerged in Clint Eastwood’s Flags of Our Fathers (he also grew up in Winnipeg which adds further points) and he continues to impress here. Sam Rockwell, one of the better actors working today, has a minor role that Rockwell underplays nicely. Having the sheriff’s nephew along for the posse’s ride is unnecessary and ridiculous – his part could have easily have been taken by a teenager or an adult. You don’t need a kid in every single film to save the day y’know.

The western vistas of New Mexico look great on the big screen here and three cheers to Favreau for resisting the studio’s pressure to film this in 3D. I think the movie benefitted by being left in traditional 2D and the bright sunlit canyons and badlands look better without the polarized lens of the modern 3D glasses.

The action sequences are at times amazing, with CGI alien ships going at Apaches and gunslingers going full-tilt on horseback. The aliens themselves are plenty scary, with a sturdy shell-like carapace, recessed hands and a real cruelty and lust for gold. Think of them as intergalactic versions of bankers and mortgage company CEOs. Okay, maybe they’re not that evil.

At the end of the day, a movie like this has to be fun and for the most part it is – the ratio of action to exposition should have leaned a little heavier towards the former but there is still enough of it to make this worth your while. If you don’t go for Westerns, the sci-fi element might be enough to make it palatable while if you don’t like sci-fi, you might take comfort in the western elements instead. If you don’t like either one, well, this is good enough filmmaking for you to check out anyway. I had hoped for a little bit better, but it is entertaining nonetheless.

REASONS TO GO: Ford and Craig provide plenty of star power and Wilde, Rockwell, Beach, Dano and Brown provide fine support. Interesting mash-up of genres.

REASONS TO STAY: Action sequences are great but too far between. The kid is completely unnecessary here.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a good deal of violence and bloodshed, some disturbing creature effects, a little bit of partial nudity and some kids in jeopardy – the very young will probably get nightmares out of this.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first comic book from Platinum Studios to be adapted to the big screen; this is the third comic adaptation from DreamWorks (after The Road to Perdition and Over the Hedge).

HOME OR THEATER: This is definitely a summer popcorn flick meant to be seen in a multiplex.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Crazy, Stupid, Love