I’ll be direct with everyone: “Cowboys & Aliens” is good. Far from perfect, but still good. In fact, there is a multitude of separate things I really respect and enjoy about the film, most of which took place in the superb first half. Mish-mashing cowboys and aliens, two concepts that have probably never ever been connected to one another before the comic book source material, may have raised a few eyebrows before the film’s release, but thanks to talented people on and off camera, the film succeeds. It could be better, but as it stands now, I like it quite a lot.
Like the classic Ridley Scott film “Alien,” this film actually takes its time to tell a story rather than overload the audience with special effects too soon. It allows the viewer to soak in the exquisiteness of each individual scene. There is genuine buildup in addition to just payoff. Daniel Craig stars as a peculiar desperado named Jake Lonergan, whose story begins in the middle of the desert circa the late 19th century. Jake has no recollection of who he is or what his current circumstances are, and the only relics on his person are a picture of a woman and an extrinsic metallic bracelet on his wrist.
Craig works great in this role, as he channels an Arnold Schwarzeneggar from “The Terminator” type of persona in these earlier, murkier scenes. He is given minimal lines of dialogue and maintains a resilient look of solemnity on his face, but he can switch to demonstrate some unbridled badassery on a dime whenever the moment calls for it. Any person who dares challenge the man gets the beating of their life. And seeing the way each fight plays out, his opponents are ALWAYS the ones who bring the punishment upon themselves.
After taking out a group of traveling cowboys, Jake rides into a town called Absolution, where he is almost immediately imprisoned for his involvement in two separate local disturbances. Absolution is a traditional village of the old west, whose inhabitants thrive thanks to the ornery Colonel Woodrow Dolarhyde’s (Harrison Ford) booming cattle industry. But something wholly bizarre and unpredictable happens to the livestock one afternoon, and if you picked up on the movie’s title, you can probably guess who the culprits behind it are.
The fateful night when Jake is about to be taken away in a stagecoach for trial is the same night the aliens make their move on the quaint community. The technologically advanced beings set the saloons ablaze with blue lasers, pillage the areas resources (namely gold), and rope up unsuspecting humans into their spaceships, which look an awful lot like tie fighters to me (especially during a scene in a canyon, which carefully alludes to the flying sequence on the Death Star). As the story takes place before most modern alien mythologies were conceived, the closest idea the townspeople can relate to these invaders are that they are demons.
The moment Jake startles everyone by destroying an enemy ship while its still airborne is the moment when a search party is formed to defeat the aliens and retrieve the abducted townsfolk. Along with Jake and Dolarhyde, we get a nice cast of colorful western characters including the amiable preacher Meacham (Clancy Brown), a kindly bar owner named Doc (played excellently by Sam Rockwell) whose wife is taken by the aliens, and a mystifying beauty named Ella (Olivia Wilde), who seems to have more of a clue about Jake then he does himself. Also there is a kid (Noah Ringer) and a dog, both of which felt like ideas from executive producer Steven Spielberg.
The film borrows recognizable elements from several other movies in both the science fiction and western genres, but the two films I found myself often drawing comparisons to were “True Grit” (the Coens’ adaptation) and “Super 8.” The screenplay hits all the right notes of a good western film, the actors and actresses play the characters reliably, and Jon Favreau’s direction once again shows he is a born talent behind the camera. And maybe the most valuable attribute is that the campy premise isn’t treated like just another ironic B-movie entry. Lives are in danger and the west is threatened, and it certainly feels that way.
However, the film does indeed work much better as a western and by the time the final act came around, I felt a little underwhelmed. I do not know why, but the original sense of excitement began to wear off in the climactic showdown between both sides. And to be sure, this won’t be a film for everyone with its preposterous sounding plot. But regardless, I believe that “Cowboys & Aliens” is better than the average summer blockbuster.
And unlike everything else these days, “Cowboys & Aliens” is NOT in 3D. Hallelujah!
My piece on “Cowboys & Aliens” from Tuesday: http://saltythebeastblog.blogspot.com/2011/07/little-piece-of-heaven-cowboys-aliens.html