Movie Review: Coboys & Aliens
Cowboys & Aliens is a great movie. This may come as a surprise to a lot of people, and I don’t really know why. A lot of great movies have been made from strange premises, and a lot of bad movies have been made from solid premises. Just because aliens didn’t invade earth in 1873 doesn’t mean they couldn’t have, and it’s a nice change of pace from the riot-gear cops and harrier jets that usually fight aliens in this day and age.
Cowboys & Aliens open with Daniel Craig waking up in the desert. He’s an amnesiac cowboy with a device locked to his wrist. After riding into town, he discovers he’s a wanted man, and although he stands up to a local punk and earns the admiration of the townsfolk, he’s scheduled to be taken to Santa Fe for trial alongside said punk, the son of gruff, wealthy cattle baron named Colonel Dolarhyde (HARRISON FORD). Then a bunch of alien spaceships kidnap some of the townsfolk, and he and Dolarhyde must a gather a posse to retrieve them.
It’s ridiculous, but it’s ridiculous in the best way. Mash-ups have been in vogue for a while now, in everything from books (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, and countless imitators) to video games (Bioshock, the “Undead Nightmare” expansion of Red Dead Redemption), and their quality is pretty hit-or-miss. Too many people assume that simply setting a story in a certain genre and then introducing zombies/pirates/robots/other pop culture memes is enough to make something enjoyable. What Jon Favreau understands in Cowboys & Aliens is that the different elements of the story need to stand on their own, as well as work together.
The first act of the movie is a pretty straight Western, and a good one at that. All the stock characters are present and well-done. There’s the down-to-earth preacher (Clancy Brown), the long-suffering saloon-keeper (Sam Rockwell), and the mysterious woman (Olivia Wilde, who has thankfully replaced Summer Glau as the nerd “It Girl” du jour). There are absent fathers and past sins to atone for. There’s racial tensions and crises of faith. Then slowly it transitions us into sci-fi tropes (super-gun with early detection system, big creepy aliens with odd limbs and builds) so that by the end, it’s a mostly sci-fi action movie. Most of the elements are familiar, but they’re all genuine and not clichéd, and the juxtaposition makes them interesting to watch.
The performances are all top-notch. Daniel Craig channels Clint Eastwood in his stoic, dangerous “Man with No Name” performance. Harrison Ford growls and glowers wonderfully in a pleasantly age appropriate role. Olivia Wilde is engaging and believable, even as she inevitably has to start spouting exposition. While it sometimes gets a little crowded (Craig’s old gang has a few too many quirky bit players), the characterizations are solid, and they bring out unique traits in one another.
There are some minor quibbles with the film. Night scenes sometimes run a bit orange and teal, although not nearly as bad as some other recent blockbusters. The alien ships are built with the same tiring aesthetic which pervades Super 8, Battle: Los Angeles, Skyline, Transformers and too many others, all shiny chrome and segments and blue lights. While Favreau manages to balance making the invaders powerful but not invincible, there are still moments when the danger wanes, as you realize that even weapons from a hundred years ago could make short work of them.
But most of this is just splitting hairs. Cowboys & Aliens is an amazing summer blockbuster. It manages to make a silly premise real and engaging, while still maintaining a sense of fun. It gives Harrison Ford another opportunity to demand his family back. Case closed.
RATING: THREE STARS (OUT OF FOUR)