Cowboys & Aliens

Ride ‘Em, ET!

Cowboys & Aliens

Directed by Jon Favreau

Screenplay by Roberto Orci & Alex Kurtzman & Damon Lindelhof and Mark Fergus & Hawk Ostby

Screen story by Mark Fergus & Hawk Ostby and Steve Oedekerk

Based on the comic book Cowboys & Aliens by Scott Mitchell Rosenberg

Arguably the first commercially successful science fiction film was Georges Melies’ A Trip to the Moon, a 15 minute 1902 film loosely based on novels by Jules Verne and H. G. Wells. Arguably the first commercially successful Western film  is The Great Train Robbery, a 1903 one-reeler directed and photographed by Edwin S. Porter, which launched the Western as the bedrock of American cinema. For decades afterward, American filmmakers showed us infinite variations on the theme of frontiers, the fear of The Other (usually non-white men), and the independent Lone Gun. After the Second World War, however, Americans turned from the past to the future, and Hollywood started making westerns set in Outer Space. This time, our fear of The Other was projected onto aliens, mad scientists, and robots.  Except for a few truly strange B-movies like The Beast of Hollow Mountain or Westworld, the two genres rarely met successfully – until now.

Cowboys & Aliens, based on a comic book, marries Westerns and science fiction in a fun and fast-paced mashup guaranteed to thrill and annoy fans of both genres. One of the things that killed the Western was our growing discomfort with depictions of the bad guys – Indians, Mexicans and blacks were no longer acceptable as automatic bad guys. Of course the pendulum swung in the other direction, and throughout the mid-20th century we got nothing but Bad White Dudes in the Westerns. But exaggeration on either end of that scale is poor entertainment, and audiences gradually abandoned the genus in favor of one where we could root wholeheartedly against dinosaurs, tentacled monsters, and radioactive Things from Out There. Now we get a movie which absolves us of all guilt, where former enemies ally against a common threat, and the Bad Guys need not be spared a moment of compassion.

Daniel Craig (Quantum of Solace, Defiance) brings his patented steel-blue glare to the role of a Man With No Memory, who wakes in the New Mexico desert with a burn wound, a tintype of a beautiful woman, and a funky-looking bracelet he can’t remove.  Before he can figure it out, he’s ambushed by a few scalp-hunting white men (led by Buck Taylor, a veteran of  174 episodes of Gunsmoke). He kills all of them in minutes, ninja-style, in a scene reminiscent of Jason Bourne. (In fact, 90% of the scenes in this movie will remind you of something else.)  From there on, the secondary theme of the movie is our hero trying to dig his past out of his memory, while confronting the unimaginable in his present. Who says Westerns can’t be relevant to the modern consciousness?

The Man With No Memory ( MWNM) arrives in a little town called Absolution (which I suspect by the end of the film has been renamed “Roswell”) and bellies up to the bar for a drink. We are treated to some classic Western characters: the drunk cowboy (Paul Dano, Knight and Day) firing his gun at random, the stalwart sheriff (Keith Carradine, Damages), the kindly preacher (Clancy Brown, Hellbenders), the sultry saloon siren (Olivia Wilde, TRON: Legacy).  One pleasant surprise was Sam Rockwell’s (Iron Man 2) barkeep/doctor, whose civility and courage are both tested and confirmed in a long saga to recover his kidnapped wife.  Chief among these Western icons, however, is the inimitable Harrison Ford (Star Wars, Indiana Jones and whatever), who wears a black hat in this movie as the overbearing cattle baron who wants the MWNM’s hide. During their confrontation, we learn that Craig’s character is a  ruthless outlaw named Jake, that he stole a bunch of gold from Ford’s character Dollarhyde (seriously? Dollarhyde? who makes up these names?), and that people have been mysteriously disappearing in and around the town. Frontier justice, Indian fears, and general lawlessness converge in a nighttime street scene, where the confrontation reaches a peak just as alien spaceships appear on the horizon.

I can hear you laughing. I laughed, too, the first time I heard this idea. But I love Westerns, and I love science fiction, pretty much for the same reason: they show us humanity on the edge of the Wild, forced to rely on guts and brains. When the enemy has superior weaponry, the emphasis on the brains ramps up even higher. As the alien ships came blasting down the dusty main street of the town, lassoing the townsfolk right and left, Jake Lonergan discovers that his odd bracelet is a powerful weapon that can bring them down – though he still does not know who or what he is, or where he came from. And I didn’t care. I was bouncing with glee in my theatre seat.  

Cowboys & Aliens has all the zing and energy, the full-throttle excitement, of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Like Raiders, it is not a film that withstands deep analysis, which would be inappropriate anyway. There are films that Make A Statement, and then there are movies meant to keep you bouncing with glee in your theatre seat.  As in most projects produced under the Spielberg aegis, there is nothing new here, but what is here is superbly done. The narrative is straightforward, unrolling with the simplicity and pacing of the Saturday morning serials that inspired Raiders and Star Wars. We get hold-up men. We get Indians. We get cowboys. We get a posse being chased by alien spaceships. Let me say that again: a posse being chased by alien spaceships. Movies do not get more fun than this.

I’m not going to give away any more of the plot than that, except to reiterate that you should not see this movie expecting to be shown something new. In fact, the motive for these aliens arriving on Earth is as old as Treasure of the Sierra Madre, and I have to admit to a few giggles when that was revealed. There are enough explosions to make Michael Bay happy, a cowboy gets to kiss the girl, we get alien torture scenes and heart-stopping kid-in-peril scenes. Like I said, this movie will remind you of many others you have seen. The point is not that it’s new, but that it recalls those scenes we loved the best, the ones that make up 90% of our cinematic heritage. If the writers (all six of them!) threw the history of Western and Sci-Fi cinema into a blender and came up with a script, at least their original ingredients were top-notch. The result cannot help but entertain and satisfy.

Cowboys & Aliens is everything a summer blockbuster movie should be: fast, fun, and loud. It gives us a first-class character arc in Harrison Ford’s gruff Colonel Dollarhyde, a feisty heroine in Olivia Wilde’s Ella, Sam Rockwell’s quiet but steadfast Doc, and a subtle and dazzling rejected “son ” in Adam Beach’s Indian drover.  If the aliens are one-dimensional, the alliances uneasy (the enemy of my enemy is not necessarily my friend), and the story elements shopworn, the execution is flawless and the atmosphere agreeably noir-ish. The image that will stay with me, though, is as iconic as any in American film history: Jake Lonergan levering the action on a Winchester ’73 rifle, pumping lead into a squalling alien. I can’t wait for a sequel:Cowboys vs. Zombies, anyone?

Copyright © 2011 by Sarah Stegall