Cowboys & Aliens
What It Is
When Jake Lonergan (Daniel Craig) comes to at the start of Cowboys & Aliens, he’s gasping for air. Behind him stretches a New Mexican landscape, with wind blowing and dust slowly swirling. He checks himself: he’s got a bloody gash in his side and an odd dark-metal-and-lights bracelet on his arm. It’s not long before he’s also got an opportunity: three rough-hewn men ride up on him, believing he’s a wanted man and imagining they’ll trade him in for a bounty. Jake has other ideas: in a moment, he’s taken out all three, outfitted himself with their weapons and boots, and picked out the best horse for a long journey. He’s also adopted by their dog, who scampers along with him loyally for the rest of the movie.
But, even as Jake seems as standard a Western hero as you’ve ever seen, he’s in a movie whose title suggests where he got that bracelet and also determines his fate. He doesn’t remember how he came by it, or why he can’t take it off, but he has an idea that it means something, and so do you.
What it means becomes clearer when Jake arrives in the town of Absolution, where he runs afoul of Percy (Paul Dano), the irresponsible son of a wealthy cattleman and Civil War veteran, Colonel Woodrow Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford). Just as Percy and Jake end up handcuffed together, the town is beset by what seems a small squadron of alien space ships, blasting buildings and capturing citizens — including the exceptionally decent Sheriff Taggart (Keith Carradine) and Maria (Ana de la Reguera), big-hearted wife of the saloonkeeper, Doc (Sam Rockwell). Horrified by the sight of their loved ones whisked away by cables into the night sky, a band of men — plus a tough girl and a sure-shot named Ella (Olivia Wilde) — form a posse, set on recovering “our people.”
Their journey and arrangement recall those of any number of intrepid heroes in American (and Italian) Westerns. If Jake begins as a man with no name, he proves himself a loyal and morally sound team leader, even when he learns that in his past, he headed a gang of robbers (including the wonderful Walton Goggins as Hunt). Now committed to doing the right thing, he convinces his fellow riders to trust him and so, follow him. Much as he won over the dog, he also finds new friends in the sheriff’s 13-year-old grandson Emmett (Noah Ringer), the preacher (Clancy Brown), and Dolarhyde’s not-quite-adopted son Nat Colorado (Adam Beach), who serves as scout and translator — helpful when the group expands to include a band of Chiricahua Apache Indians. The chief, Black Knife (Raoul Trujillo), reports that they have also lost loved ones to the aliens, and so they agree to fight back together.
The upshot is an admirable unity of humans (of various races) in the battle against the big bad ugly aliens.
Why It’s Fun
The idea to combine these boisterous movie genres, the Western and the SF-alien invasion, is terrific. The execution is fine, if not outstanding. The action is lively, from shoot-outs to galloping horses. The landscapes — mostly shot in New Mexico — are beautiful.
And the exchanges between tough guys — who come to find they’re sometimes less tough than they think — can be entertaining.
Who’s Going To Love It
Fans of the story’s source, a graphic novel by Scott Mitchell Rosenberg, may want to see how it’s simplified and also brought to life on screen.
Daniel Craig fans will be happy to see him again, and he appears to have fun playing this terse, confident hero. The film does not take enough advantage of the pairing of Craig and Ford: these two are terrific together, but don’t share more than a handful of scenes.
What To Be Aware Of
SPOILER ALERT: Paragraph 5, below.
Lots of violence, some of it rather grisly. The aliens blast buildings (flames shooting up into the sky or dotting long-distance landscapes) and people (who slam through walls and windows, land hard, and bleed frequently).
When at last the humans fight back, they’re inclined to hack, spear, and shoot open aliens’ heads and chests. The violent acts include shootings, explosions, broken hands, painful-looking crotch-kicks, and stabbings (the little boy is instructed by Dolarhyde to “be a man,” a plot point made visible when Emmett stabs an alien: it’s a disturbing, but brief, moment.
The Apaches perform the usual Western movie conventions: they whoop and scream as they head into battle.
The aliens also perform some awful surgical procedures on Jake and his girlfriend, which he relives in flashbacks and you see in a few long shots and bloody close-ups.
Jake’s use of the bracelet — which turns out to be a super-powerful weapon — inflicts deep damage on the aliens. So too does Ella’s decision to use it to blow up the aliens’ space ship (and — here’s the SPOILER — she kills herself doing it, thus making Jake very sad).
A couple of scenes show brief, chaste kissing. Ella puts her hands on Jake's chest, apparently impressed with his toned abs.
Cowboys smoke cigarettes.
Per Western conventions, the cowboys do some drinking and get drunk. The Indians provide some chanting and mystic smoke, leading Jake to hallucinate and so recall his past, as well as the location of the aliens’ hideout.
Language is PG-13 salty, including repeated uses of “damn,” “hell,” “ass” (also, “rat’s ass”), “s**t,” and “son of a b***h.” Meacham refers to a “pecker.”
6 out of 10
Cowboys & Aliens
Director: Jon Favreau
Cast: Daniel Craig, Harrison Ford, Olivia Wilde, Sam Rockwell, Adam Beach, Keith Carradine, Paul Dano, Clancy Brown
Studio: Universal Pictures
US Premiere: July 29, 2011
UK Premiere: August 17, 2011