Westerns have long been a staple in cinema and an equally large trend since the beginning of movie-making has been science fiction, so when you hear that these two popular genres are being combined, you can’t help but feel intrigued and excited. Plus, “Cowboys & Aliens” is directed by Jon Favreau (“Iron Man,” “Elf”) and produced by Steven Spielberg and Ron Howard, all of whom have some large hits under their belts. Can they take this odd concept from a 2006 comic book and bring it to the big screen in a way audiences will understand and enjoy? Well read on and find out.
When a stranger (Daniel Craig) awakens in 1873 Arizona desert, with a wound on his side, no recollection of who he is or why he has this mysterious manacle on his wrist, things don’t seem to be working in his favor. He makes his way to the nearby mining town of Absolution and has a run in with Percy Dolarhyde (Paul Dano), the son of Col. Woodrow Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford), who thinks he owns the town because of the revenue his cattle business brings to it. The stranger also meets a preacher named Meacham (Clancy Brown), a timid saloon owner named Doc (Sam Rockwell) and a beautiful woman named Ella (Olivia Wilde).
When the sheriff, John Taggart (Keith Carradine), rolls into town to deal with the disturbance, he recognizes the mysterious stranger as none other than the wanted man Jake Lonergan, an outlaw who robbed Col. Dolarhyde just a week prior. After the sheriff locks up both Percy Dolarhyde and Jake Lonergan, strange lights appear in the sky and as fire and explosions reign down, vessels swoop down and take a group of townspeople, including Percy Dolarhyde and the sheriff. Before all of these aerial vessels can escape, the manacle of Lonergan’s wrist lights up and shoots down a ship, wounding its driver. The townspeople decide to go on the hunt for the creature and that’s when enemies, outlaws, priests and cowboys all go on a chase together to find those taken and defeat the “demons” that took them.
Along the way, they run into a tribe of aggressive Indians, a band of outlaws and a whole lot of mysterious circumstances. As the chase wears on, Lonergan begins to have flashes of memories that show him a house, a beautiful woman and an unseen foe. Can this be the life he has forgotten and was he ever the bad man everyone says he was? As he continues to struggle with these visions, the unearthly beauty of Ella entices him but he continues to fight against her telling him that he must remember what happened and that he is the only person that can stop what is happening. How does she know so much and what is she not telling him? Can he discover his past and will it be the key to unlocking their success in their adventure?
“Cowboys & Aliens” is a truly perplexing film to gauge because it is a mash-up of two seemingly opposite genres (modern vs. historic). A basic way to describe it is that it’s a fun summer action film with a great cast that celebrates and melds two major genres together seamlessly in a way that makes you believe these two opposite worlds could combine. Although it is funny and action-filled at times, it seemed to have a major hiccup in the middle when it came to pace, plus it could have explained some of its more radical concepts a bit further. Most of these questions arose after the film ended and while I did enjoy the movie, the longer I thought about it the more qualms I had with certain aspects of it.
While the cast did amazing work and Harrison Ford was outstanding in his villainous role at the beginning, the movie chose to focus on the relationship between Lonergan and Ella while it should have stuck to the concept that it started at the beginning between its leading men. This would have been a better basis for the film and it all makes sense when you look at the laundry list of writers that came in and revised the script over and over again. Besides sharing a name, the comic book and story of the movie have nearly nothing in common, possibly because director Jon Favreau wanted to create a truly new story to surprise people. But I think it wouldn’t have done much harm to stay a bit closer the original material. Some of what I read about the comic could have been amazing to see onscreen.
Another small issue I had with the movie was the aliens themselves. They are most distressing when they are kept in the dark, but once you see them fully in the light and get to see them in action, they are a bit generic and not nearly as frightening. They could have possibly been more engaging if they didn’t seem like mindless warriors and a bit more individualistic in their actions. Out of all the aliens we see in the film (especially in the ending battle), there is only one that is given a trait to make it stand out from the rest. I would have liked something else that could have made them seem more like an army of methodical creatures then just an invading horde.
This is not to say that I didn’t like any of the film; on the contrary, I found many pieces of it enjoyable. The beautiful and massive landscapes of New Mexico that filled in for the Arizona desert were breathtaking, and the original score composed by Harry Gregson-Williams was inspired and complimented the film. It truly drove the emotions for every scene and was a great addition to the film as a whole. The action sequences were terrific and the design of the ships and the look and sound of the weapons were truly unique as well.
I don’t have to talk about the acting, because every one of our main characters and even the supporting cast played their parts well. Harrison Ford, Daniel Craig, Olivia Wilde and all of the rest are at the top of their games and do well in creating new characters for us to watch onscreen. The movie also stars Noah Ringer, Adam Beach, Ana de la Reguera, Walton Goggins, David O’Hara and Brendan Wayne.
In summary, “Cowboys & Aliens” is a fun summer popcorn flick that offers pure escapist enjoyment for its two-hour running time and fans of any of the actors can enjoys many parts of the film the way I did. Don’t go in seeking answers and deeper substance because there isn’t a lot of that offered here. In the end, you know that the aliens don’t stand a chance. How could they possibly hope to win in a battle against Han Solo and James Bond?
“Cowboys & Aliens” — which is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of western and sci-fi action and violence and some partial nudity — rides its way into theaters today.
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