"This Galaxy Ain't Big Enough for the Both of Us"
"Just My Ray-Gun, Pony and Me..."
Good idea, this. Two genres that have been around as long as there've been movies* and have served the same purpose—taking a theme that might be controversial if played in modern street-clothes, but dress it in rawhide or spandex and it takes some of the "edge" off. You'd think the two would go together as well as Zero-G and sawdust, but there have been already some tentative steps in anti-gravity cowboy boots: There have been westerns with a touch of fantasy—The Valley of Gwangi—and Sci-Fi with a western foundation (Outland was High Noon in space suits) but the two haven't really been combined as equal parts as in Cowboys & Aliens (the ampersand is required).
Loosely based on its comic source, it starts in familiar territory—a desert landscape, ancient river-beds long-since dried up and now sun-blasted bluffs and scrub. Suddenly, a Man With No Name (Daniel Craig) lurches up into frame, sun-burned, bootless, bloodied with a wound in his side.** He has no memory of who he is, where he is or why he's there (at one point a townie asks him "What DO you know?" "English" is the laconic reply). One odd thing—a thick manacle from wrist to forearm on his left arm. Smashing it with a rock would work with hand-cuffs, but this thing won't budge. He's set upon by riff-raff that he dispatches in a whirlwind of flying fists and gun-fire. So much for outfitting. With newly acquired boots, shirt, vest and hat, he climbs on top of a pilfered horse and rides to a nearby town...with a loyal dog in tow. All the elements are in place.
A stranger in town (and everywhere, one assumes), he gets noticed and in trouble—mussing up the son (Paul Dano, really good) of the requisite town rich-guy-fascist (Harrison Ford, low and husky), and getting landed in the hoosegow by Sheriff John Taggart (Keith Carradine, whose Daddy appeared as a gambler in the granddaddy of Westerns, John Ford's Stagecoach). That's sounding like Howard Hawks' Rio Bravo, but about the time Ford's Colonel Dolarhyde (nice name for a rancher) arrives with some hired rough-necks to spring his boy, new arrivals appear in town—blue lights in the sky, which turn into flying ships—they recall fighter-jets in the daylight—that start blowing things up and (in a neat touch) lasso people and yanking them into the sky. The attack sets off The Stranger's fancy bracelet, which starts to "queep," pops up a sight, and knocks one of the ships out of the sky.
Suddenly, The Stranger gets a lot more interesting.
Because the invaders have been nicely particular about who they took—Dolarhyde's son, the Sheriff, the wife of the town's doc/bar-keep (Sam Rockwell, not used well enough, sadly), a posse is formed to find the kidnapees and at this point the movie turns decidedly conventional. It should. It's The Searchers, which begat Close Encounters of the Third Kind. And along the way, the posse manages to accumulate allies in a criminal gang, a tribe of Apaches (who are polite enough not to mention that "an invasion by strange aliens with weapons to take our resources" sounds vaguely familiar), and, for all I know, The Outlaw Josey Wales—who also accumulated an unlikely army that turned into family. This is useful, because for the big battles with the Invaders,*** there needs to be a large number of red-shirts and red-bandanas to eliminate, so we don't lose the strays that make up the posse, which include a dog, the Sheriff's grand-son (Noah Ringer), and as Clancy Brown's Preacher (gotta have one of those, too) grouses, "We gotta dog and a kid, we might as well have a woman, too" That woman is Olivia Wilde, who spends most of the movie looking enigmatically sultry, while doing things that make you go "eh?" throughout the movie, beyond just the fact that as Craig gets more and more beat-up, her make-up never gets smudged. As welcome as Wilde's presence is in all this testosterone, her character is the most problematic, running inconsistently throughout the film—she's either "capable" or she isn't, and ultimately you realize that she's just a "device" that gets the screenwriters (a squad of them including the two that wrote Star Trek and the "Transformers" films—as opposed to the two who wrote the "Pirates of the Caribbean" movies) out of trouble. Mention should also be made of Adam Beach, who keeps getting better every movie, and Craig who does "the Eastwood thang" real good. Director Favreau (he of Iron Man fame, his chief skill seems to be impeccable casting), manages to direct it absolutely straight, with just enough of a hitch in the standard cliches to make things interesting, rather than well-trod.
Nothing is made of the irony of these new aliens making life difficult for "the natives," save for some terse nods of collaboration between members of the extended posse. That doesn't sadden me too much as most movies these days seem to want to beat you over the head with their "message," in case you don't get it. But, in so doing, Cowboys & Aliens manages to fulfill both the Western and Sci-Fi genre's abilities to put things in unique perspectives to throw a light onto our world.
As I said, good idea. A bit fun, too.
Cowboys & Aliens is a very cheap Matinee.
* As in The Great Train Robbery (1903) and A Trip to the Moon (1902).
** It's not too unlike the beginning of Silverado where Paden (Kevin Kline) is found by Emmett (Scott Glenn), alone in the desert, robbed of everything but his skivvies.
*** The Extra-terrestrials are nasty looking brutes, who run like apes, and have a physiognomy that makes me wonder if the design is based on some of the designs of director Jon Favreau's planned film of John Carter of Mars (which is now being filmed by Disney-Pixar, directed by Andrew Stanton—the trailer is out now).