Arizona, 1873. Jake Lonergan (Daniel Craig) wakes up in the middle of the desert. He is disoriented. He’s not really sure who he is, or how he got there. Weirder still, this stoic man with ice blue eyes isn’t wearing a hat or boots, and yet he has a strange metal shackle on his left wrist that he simply cannot remove. He also appears to have a gunshot wound in his side. Before he can get his bearings, a trio of sweaty and dirty horsemen, and their shaggy dog, comes upon him. (Since they have scalps on their saddles, we can assume they’ve been killing Indians.) After one glance, they determine that he’s probably worth a hefty reward, and they prepare to take him in – at gunpoint. Instinct kicks in, and Lonergan kills them, takes one of the men’s clothing and horse, and rides off – dog in tow – to Absolution, a mining town now “run” by rancher Col. Woodrow Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford). Trouble never seems far away from Lonergan, and after an incident with Dolarhyde’s idiotic and spoiled son, Percy (Paul Dano), the two of them end up in prison. While the prisoners are about to transported to Sante Fe, N.M., the town is suddenly attacked by several spaceships. And nothing will bring them down, except for the device on Lonergan’s wrist. Who is Lonergan? How did he acquire that “alien” device? Who is Ella (Olivia Wilde), the mysterious woman who is desperate to get help from Lonergan? And, probably the most pressing issue of all: What are aliens even doing in the Old West?
Cowboys & Aliens is based on a Platinum Studios comic book. Writing the screenplay are Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman and Damon Lindelof (all of these guys are associated with various J.J. Abrams projects; the first two with the TV shows Alias and Fringe; Lindelof with the TV series Lost), and Mark Fergus and Hawk Ostby (both of them are associated with Jon Favreau’s Iron Man). Lots of hands in the kitchen, yes, but it’s not like they are a bunch of newbies fumbling in the dark. All of them have a number of notable projects in their pasts. For instance, Fergus and Ostby wrote/adapted Children of Men (2006), and wrote one of my favorites, the largely unknown, Guy Pearce drama/thriller First Snow (2006). From the title, and especially the trailer, it should be apparent to anyone with a brain that Cowboys & Aliens is a hybrid film: The western meets sci-fi. While I welcome the mixing of seemingly incongruous genres, some people don’t, so they might have a difficult time suspending enough disbelief to appreciate this film. Time will tell, but so far, it is neck-and-neck with The Smurfs at the box office, with The Smurfs taking a slight lead. (I am shocked by this news, to be honest.) And reactions to it seem to be falling into two categories: Those who really like the film and those who loathe it. I find myself in the former category, for a number of reasons.
First, I adore just about everyone in this cast. Craig, looking very sun-damaged, plays Lonergan as he does James Bond, only instead of wearing designer suits, he sports chaps, boots, a vest and a leather hat. He’s the strong, silent type who doesn’t suffer fools, which means he gets to knock Paul Dano around; something I really relished. (I don’t like Dano or his character in this film.) Ford is a grouchy, mean old man – a character type he seems to be playing a lot these days – but thankfully, he isn’t one note. Toward the end of the film, he shares a tender moment with Adam Beach, who plays Nat Colorado, a native man who was raised by Dolarhyde. (It brought tears to my eyes.) Speaking of Beach, I was so chuffed to see him in this film that I practically did a somersault. A white-haired Clancy Brown, plays the preacher, Meacham. He’s a guy who gives Lonergan the benefit of the doubt, and, in the beginning, sews up the man’s wound. A bespectacled Sam Rockwell plays Doc, a saloon owner. He’s one of the moral compasses in the film, and he is determined to get his wife back after the aliens abduct her. Other notable actors in Cowboys & Aliens, include: Keith Carradine, who plays Sheriff John Taggart; Glaswegian actor David O’Hara, who plays Pat Dolan, a gang leader; and my favorite of the lot, Walton Goggins, who plays Hunt, a gang member. Seeing him in the film reminds me that I need to watch season two of the TV series Justified already. Just because I like almost everyone in the cast doesn’t make it a good film. I know that. But it sure raised the bar for me.
Second, if you know me, you already understand that whenever a dog shows up in a film, and it doesn’t die or isn’t tormented in any way, that dog is going to elevate my rating of that film. And in this case, the dog in question looks like an Australian shepherd, a breed I like a lot, and he isn’t just a cameo. He’s in it for the long haul, from beginning to end. Sure, it’s a simpleminded reason for liking a film, but oh well. People will see Cowboys & Aliens, hoping to see Olivia Wilde without her clothes. At least my rationale isn’t as unsavory.
Third, I will acknowledge that the screenplay wasn’t particularly innovative, and it could have used some tightening up. But, overall, I wasn’t bored by it. (The same cannot be said of many films I’ve seen recently.) And it wasn’t overly long. Its running time is 118 minutes. Parts of it were funny; parts were exciting. For better or worse, Cowboys & Aliens is sort of what happens when you take well-known elements from the two genres and you throw them into a blender. So … Absolution is populated by people who don’t take kindly to strangers. Some of the characters are bandits who have a lust for stolen gold treasure. And aliens are doing a whole lot of abducting and experimenting. POSSIBLE SPOILERS ***The aliens abduct people by lassoing them and jerking them into the sky. Once the people are aboard the alien craft, they were kept calm by having them stare into a blue, orb-like light above them. (For some reason, this made me think of the Skeksis and how they used the dark crystal to drain the Pod People of their living essence. I’m talking about the 1985 fantasy film Dark Crystal for the uninitiated.) The effect created of having all of these people staring upwards with a blue tinge to their eyes was a bit unnerving. I found the alien design to be intriguing. It was unusual in that these aliens were sort of giant insect/amphibians. That set of frog-like hands and arms that came out of their chests … creeped me out every time I saw them. Some people have complained about the rationale behind the aliens wanting to invade Earth. Why do they want gold? They were melting it down, so maybe they were using it in their technology; as a conduit. Who cares? At least they weren’t coming to take our water, that old trope. Or coming to enslave us so that we could rebuild their planet that was about to come crashing into ours. Jesus, if people can suspend their disbelief to swallow the premises of the Transformer movies, which, by the way, make the GNP of several third and first world nations combined, I think they can accept aliens landing on Earth in the 19th century, looking for gold, and taking humans so they can discover our weaknesses. SPOILERS and rant ENDED.
A few other things: I appreciated the look of the film, created by Matthew Libatique. The New Mexico desert (standing in for Arizona), never looked better. Almost makes me want to visit the state again. I love costume design, and Mary Zophres really outdoes herself here. Everything from Craig’s chaps to the Mescalero Apache warrior costumes is laudatory. I hope that when they release the film on Blu-ray, they have a section on how they researched/designed the costumes. And my goodness, the tailoring in this film … Craig’s ensemble fits him like a second skin. One person commented on IMDB that the best thing about the film is Craig’s ass. Well, I can’t argue with that. The score by Harry Gregson-Williams is outstanding, and I’ve already purchased it on iTunes. The opening track, titled “Jake Lonergan,” sold me on the film. It’s guitar driven with some additional classic strings and an infectious drum beat in support. It evokes the classical Western – Ennio Morriconesque – but with a modern twist. For a more melancholic track, there’s “Goodbye Jake.” I’m digging the entire thing. Finally, I enjoyed the exchange between the cowboys and the Mescalero Apache. They are enemies but they have to come together to fight a common enemy, and although that’s romantic and “cheesy” I love that kind of idealistic revisionism. The tribe is led by Black Knife, who is played by the phenomenal actor Raoul Trujillo. He has the most interesting face and has amazing intensity. He was terrific in Black Robe (1991) and the horrible, awful, no good Apocalypto (2006). Back to Adam Beach, this handsome Canadian actor has had a long and, in my opinion, glorious career, starring in everything from Smoke Signals (1998) to Flags of Our Fathers (2006), a film that should have garnered him an Oscar nominated. Anything he shows up in … I’ll see it.
[Finally, and this is just an FYI to those who see the film: There is a native ritual performed during which Craig’s character imbibes some sort of hallucinogen, no doubt peyote. He has a vision of a hummingbird. Why does that bird appear? He was probably his “spirit animal” or “spirit guide.” Hummingbirds appear as animal totems in various cultures. They can be seen as a symbol of resurrection, love and romance (which might be why the hummingbird shows up at the house he shared with the prostitute), and as messengers between worlds.]
Overall, I really enjoyed myself during Cowboys & Aliens, which probably means it will be a box office bomb. I hope not, because I would really like to see a Western revival take place in Hollywood. Westerns rock even when they are combined with sci-fi elements. Yes, even then.
Rating: 4 stars out of 5
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