Film Review: Cowboys & Aliens

Can a Hollywood movie be highly derivative and refreshingly original at the same time? Would Indiana Jones and James Bond make a good buddy flick?

Sometimes the title of a film conveys irresistible promise: Strangers on a Train. Sometimes it promises more than the movie delivers: Snakes on a Plane. And sometimes a title is, simply, a great notion. Cowboys & Aliens is the ultimate why-hasn’t-anybody-thought-of-this-before rollicking summer blockbuster-in-waiting whose time has come.

The movie is exactly what you think it is, and it’s as much fun as you would imagine it to be, although there’s nothing novel about its story other than that it mixes up two well-worn genres to make them seem fresh again. The filmmakers—Cowboys & Aliens is a team effort with heavy hitters in every department—had the good sense to play the campy concept straight, rejecting the knowing irony that characterizes so much Hollywood fare. Sure, they gleefully beg, borrow and steal from classic westerns and sci-fi adventures in every scene, roping together so many clichés and tropes you’ll have a hard time discerning John Ford from George Lucas. Yes, the characters are two-dimensional and the plot offers few surprises beyond the curious commingling of six-shooters and ray guns. But Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford deliver rip-roaring performances, the cinematography and production design are spectacular, and the action-serial approach to the material—the Lone Ranger meets Buck Rogers under the Big Sky—will beguile kids and old-timers alike.

Based on the graphic novel by Scott Mitchell Rosenberg, Cowboys & Aliens gets the adrenaline flowing with a good old-fashioned punch-up. Mysterious stranger Jake Lonergan (Craig) wakes up wounded under a scorching desert sun with no gun and no clue about the curious manacle strapped to his left wrist. Looking worse for the wear but ever unflappable, he dispatches three bounty hunters (bloody fly-ridden scalps hanging from their saddles) who have the misfortunate to cross his path—Lonergan is a man’s man who doesn’t even bother to squint at his antagonists—then commandeers a horse to ride to the nearest town, Absolution. In short order, Lonergan runs afoul of flinty cattle baron Woodrow Dolarhyde (Ford), who does squint, and with good reason. Just when these two archetypes seem destined to settle the score with fists or bullets—WHAM!— blazing insect-like, steam-punk-styled, death-ray-blasting alien cruisers swarm into town exploding buildings, lassoing cowpokes, and rocketing this western into hyperspace.

The movie never slows down from here, pausing occasionally to set up tried-and-true set-pieces involving a boy (Noah Ringer) coming of age, a good-hearted coward (Sam Rockwell) finding his courage, and such like. Paul Dano provides an amusing turn as Dolarhyde’s bratty son, Percy, and Adam Beach an affecting one as Dolarhyde’s ranch hand-cum-Percy substitute. Clancy Brown gives us a whiskeyed preacher, Keith Carradine a wizened sheriff, and Raoul Trujillo a warrior Apache. The other mysterious stranger, Ella (Olivia Wilde), whose green eyes are as piercing as the laser beams that shoot from Lonergan’s spacey manacle, is out of this world in more ways than one.

There’s as much talent behind the camera as in front of it: director Jon Favreau (Iron Man and Iron Man 2), producers Steven Spielberg, Brian Grazer and Ron Howard, lenser Matthew Libatique (Black Swan), composer Harry Gregson-Williams (Shrek)…to single out, perhaps unfairly, the better-known filmmakers involved in the project. Six writers (Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman, Damon Lindelof, Mark Fergus, Hawk Ostby, Steve Oedekerk) worked on the story and script, usually a sign of trouble, but Cowboys & Aliens is coherent and witty, which owes to editors Dan Lebental and Jim May as well. The production design by Scott Chambliss (Salt), costumes by Mary Zophres (True Grit), and special effects by Roger Guyett (Star Trek), Shane Mahan (Aliens) and assistants are all first-rate. The film is so well-done one wants to credit everybody.

Box office will be boffo, and the tourist trade in New Mexico should soar as well. The buttes, canyons and prairies of this magnificent state never looked better, particularly Plaza Blanca, the setting for the aliens’ hideout, and why not? After all, the state claims Roswell as well as Silver City.