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TBTS Reviews: Cowboys & Aliens

August 4, 2011

Cowboys & Aliens is not the first western/sci-fi mashup, and it certainly won’t be the last. I’m generally a fan of combining seemingly disparate story genres, hoping the strengths of one will make up for the weakness of another. I’d say it works more often than it fails, but that depends on the artists behind it. In this case a conscientious director in Jon Favreau and (I daresay) nuanced performances by Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford are really the strengths of Cowboys & Aliens.

Cowboys & Aliens posterI’ve decided that whenever I find out that a film is based on a graphic novel or some other medium, I should probably try to read/watch it in its original format before seeing the Hollywood version. I’m tired of feeling like I missed something in a character or story point because it got lost in the translation. This is not to say that all Hollywood adaptations are necessarily dumbed down from their source material; there have been some great big-budget adaptations that either made no significant changes or made changes that were not a kick in the taint to the original artist’s vision. This is also not to say that Cowboys & Aliens wasn’t good. It was.

But it wasn’t great.

First, to get the requisite plot synopsis out of the way, Daniel Craig plays an initially unnamed stranger who wakes up in the desert on the outskirts of Absolution, New Mexico. He has amnesia; can’t remember who he is or how he got there or how he got the nasty wound in his side. He also can’t remember how he got the strange bracelet on his left wrist or what it’s for. After a brief altercation with some bandits (to establish his badassery), he makes his way into town where he is quickly recognized as the outlaw Jake Lonergan. He is wanted for the murder of a prostitute and the theft of gold from the town’s most successful businessman, a gruff, cruel cattleman named Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford). Further badassery ensues as Lonergan assaults Dolarhyde’s obnoxious son Percy (Paul Dano), meets the enigmatic Ella (Olivia Wilde), and is taken into custody.

As Dolarhyde argues with Sheriff Taggart (Keith Carradine) over what’s to be done with the captured outlaw, the town is attacked by aircraft of great speed and incredible destructive power. The alien ships whiz around above the town, causing explosions and lassoing people away, including Percy and the sheriff. Lonergan’s strange bracelet becomes active and converts itself to a powerful weapon. With it he shoots down one of the ships, and while everyone marvels at his accomplishment the ship’s alien pilot escapes into the desert. A posse of sorts is formed, featuring Dolarhyde’s right-hand man Nat (Adam Beach), Meacham the preacher (Clancy Brown), and the town’s doctor and saloon owner Doc (Sam Rockwell) whose wife was also abducted. The ever-mysterious Ella joins them, and tries to help Jake remember his past as they track the alien into the wild.

I’m not sure what it is about the conceit that an alien visit to our planet would only occur in modern times and/or only in our country. Honestly, I find a human/alien conflict wherein we are even less equally matched, weapon-wise, more compelling. (That doesn’t mean that I don’t enjoy movies like Battle: Los Angeles, which was much better than the critics gave it credit for.) Other films, such as Stargate, have explored the idea that aliens could have come to this planet at any time in our history, and could even have influenced the development of human civilization. In comics, the nationalistic conceit has been explored in series such as Superman: Red Son, wherein Superman’s Kryptonian escape-pod lands in the Soviet Union instead of Kansas, USA and he is raised “as the Champion of the common worker who fights a never-ending battle for Stalin, socialism, and the international expansion of the Warsaw Pact.” After all, at one time the Soviet Union covered one-sixth of Earth’s land mass, more than twice that of the United States. Jor-El sends his baby out into space a few hours earlier or later and he would land on Earth pretty much anywhere but Kansas.

But I digress…

There are some great characters in Cowboys & Aliens. Harrison’s Dolarhyde, while maintaining a gruff (and more than a little bigoted) exterior is slowly revealed to be a war-weary veteran with a soft spot for children. Doc, though at first meek and inexperienced with a gun, becomes a crack shot and a man determined to get his wife back. Perhaps the most interesting character development is that of Nat, a native American who was taken in as a boy and raised by Dolarhyde. He clearly worships the man and vies for the same attention and fatherly love given to perpetual screw-up Percy.

This is not necessarily a film for deep insights into the human condition (and that’s not necessarily a bad thing), but it’s great that a few have managed to insert themselves in between alien/human combat set pieces. Other highlights include the production design of the ships and aliens. (Not having read the original comic, I cannot say whether the aliens’ appearance matches the comic.) A brief bit of fighting takes place in a huge riverboat that, it is assumed, the aliens have dumped upside-down in the middle of the desert 500 miles from the nearest river. This claustrophobic and out-of-place locale makes for a great reveal of the aliens’ form. However, that revelation happens altogether too early in the movie. Spielberg this is not. There are a few troublesome holes here and there, such as Ella’s sudden and inadequately explained ability to speak a native American language, and the amusingly inconsistent need for translation between the white folks and the native Americans they meet later in the film. And later, when Nat puts his neck on the line for his surrogate father Dolarhyde, the entire bit seems rushed, as is Dolarhyde’s acceptance of the natives’ help.

The climactic battle between the humans and the aliens, resulting in the inevitable destruction of the alien ship, is well choreographed and exciting. Clearly Favreau is bringing some of that Iron Man mojo to this project. What is pleasantly striking is Favreau’s decision to make the human weapons seem so pathetic. Revolvers and rifles, which would ordinarily be disproportionately loud and dramatic in an action movie, are made weak and largely ineffectual in the face of the advanced destructive power of the alien technology. It’s as if Favreau is using sound to augment the idea that this is a conflict of wills, not guns. As it is said late in the movie, the aliens see humans as little more than insects and do not expect significant resistance. Thus the humans have but to overcome their fear and use what little they have at their disposal.

Effects by George Lucas’ Industrial Light & Magic are of course top notch and seamless, especially in a later scene involving a bonfire (sorry, no spoilers). The aliens’ movement looks natural, and their faces are surprisingly expressive. I appreciated the overall lack of campiness (which would have been all-too-easy to add for lazy laughs). It’s fun and funny, but only intentionally so. Still, as I said, this movie isn’t great. If you remove either major element, the western or the sci-fi, neither is particularly strong on its own. Often I judge movies on whether or not I would want to own a copy for my collection on whatever is the best format du jour. With Cowboys & Aliens I honestly can’t decide. I recommend it, but only as a great popcorn-n-soda way to spend an evening.

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3 Comments
  1. Paul the Geek permalink
    August 4, 2011 2:20 pm

    Rather than editing my review after the fact to say this, I’d like to add here that Olivia Wilde is a damn handsome woman. Not traditionally hot, in an increasingly artificial sense, but quite fetching and even mesmerizing on screen.

  2. Sean Gilroy permalink
    August 6, 2011 9:31 pm

    Spot on. Not a great movie, but not everything can be. It was enough for me that nothing in it made me groan and cover my face. Also, I could really see Daniel Craig as Roland Deschain after watching this movie.

    • Paul the Geek permalink
      August 8, 2011 4:23 pm

      Totally agree on the Craig/Deschain thing.

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