Cowboys & Aliens
Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups slogan used to be “Two great tastes that taste great together.” While putting together peanut butter and chocolate doesn’t seem like that much of a risk to the taste buds, convincing people that chocolate and pretzels would be a taste treat probably required a stronger sales job. Each of us has an odd sounding combination of foods that we really enjoy. For instance, as a child I was tricked into trying pinto beans (or as we called them in my youth, soup beans) by putting ketchup on them and mixing them together. I often get looked at as if I was insane when I place a dollop of ketchup on top of a pile of pinto beans but that’s how I learned to like them and I still eat them that way. It isn’t to everyone’s liking but to each their own. Recently, the idea of mixing together literary genres that don’t usually go together has found surprising success in the form of “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” and “Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter.” Naturally, any time an odd mixture of storytelling finds success in one format, others will follow suit. The graphic novel “Cowboys and Aliens” has been turned into a movie directed by Jon Favreau. Does this Western/Sci-Fi mash up prove to be more like a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup or do they go together like oil and water?
A man (Daniel Craig) wakes up in the desert. He doesn’t know his name, where he is or how he got there. He has a wound in his side and a thick metallic shackle on his left wrist. Three men approach on horseback asking for his name but he doesn’t respond. Thinking he will be an easy mark, the men surround him, guns drawn, planning to take him to the nearby small town of Absolution, Arizona to see if he’s a wanted fugitive. Instinctively, the unnamed man quickly disarms and kills his three would-be assailants. Replacing his torn and bloody clothes with one of the recently deceased’s, the man takes a horse and rides toward Absolution. In town, the man encounters Percy Dolarhyde (Paul Dano), the spoiled, petulant son of cattle baron Woodrow Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford). The man puts Percy in his place leading the brat to fire off some wild shots, injuring a deputy sheriff. Sheriff John Taggart (Keith Carradine) arrests Percy despite the young man’s threats that his father will ride into town and get him released. At the jail, Sheriff Taggart sees a wanted poster with the face of the man who humiliated Percy. The man enters the saloon run by Doc (Sam Rockwell) and his wife Maria (Ana de la Reguera). A woman named Ella (Olivia Wilde) approaches the man and seems to know more about him than he does himself. The sheriff arrives with a group of men to take the wanted man he knows as Jake Lonergan into custody for the crimes of murder and robbery among others. Jake easily beats up and disarms all the men but is knocked unconscious by Ella. Jake is loaded in a wagon with Percy to be sent to federal marshals for trial, when Woodrow Dolarhyde and his men ride into town. He tells the sheriff he wants his son and Lonergan released to him. He says Lonergan stole a shipment of his gold bullion and he wants to get it back. As the standoff between Dolarhyde and the sheriff gets tense, lights appear in the sky. Soon, there are explosions and people are being pulled up to alien ships by grapples. The shackle on Jake’s arm begins to beep and light up. It opens up and becomes a formidable weapon shooting energy bolts that bust him out of the prisoner wagon and shoots down one of the ships. The attack ends, but the sheriff, Percy, Maria and several other townsfolk have been snatched up by the strange ships. Whatever was flying the craft Jake shot out of the sky has been injured and escaped into the night, its tracks picked up by Dolarhyde’s right-hand man Nat Colorado (Adam Beach), a Native American. At first considered an outlaw, Jake is now asked to join a search party of Dolarhyde, his men and other townspeople since he has the only weapon they know will stop the attackers. Refusing and riding off on his own, Jake is plagued by visions of a beautiful brown-haired woman and flashes of what looks like a nightmare where gold coins melt and are pulled into the sky and he and the woman are snagged by the same grapples as the folks from town. Jake joins the posse and soon the group is confronted by the daunting task of not only rescuing their loved ones but saving the world from an alien invasion.
I didn’t know exactly how the mixture of sci-fi and western would sit with me. The trailers looked good but even the worst movie looks ok in a two minute preview. I was curious if the writers of “Lost” and the “Star Trek” reboot and the director of the “Iron Man” films could merge these two seemingly disparate genres into a seamless whole. For the most part, they did.
The cast is a big part of the films’ success. Daniel Craig plays a terrific conflicted hero. He is my favorite James Bond and he brings much of that tortured toughness to this role as well. Craig’s Lonergan is a man who, in his amnesiac state, doesn’t go looking for trouble but it always seems to find him. He handles every situation with a level of cool that hides any fear or uncertainty his character may have. While his performance is somewhat of the “one note” variety, it works given the situation. Olivia Wilde’s role in a traditional western would have probably been the “hooker with a heart of gold.” Here she’s a woman hiding a secret identity which becomes pivotal to the rescue of those taken by the aliens. Her performance is rather understated and a little wild eyed, but it makes sense once her secret is exposed. The real surprise in the film is Harrison Ford as the no-nonsense cattle baron Woodrow Dolarhyde. He’s completely unlikable when he’s introduced to the audience. Cruel, insensitive, controlling, racist, not exactly the terms that pop into mind when you think of a Harrison Ford role. Neither Indiana Jones nor Han Solo is he. Still, you can tell Ford is into the part, probably because the character is so unlike his usual heroic characters. He warms up a little as the film moves forward, but only a little. The whole cast is very good in their roles and no one seems out of place.
The aliens and special effects are very good as well. The creatures have a chest that opens up to expose long arms with three-fingered hands that seem to be better suited to fine, delicate work than the giant clawed hands at the ends of their other arms. They are big, tough, bug-eyed monsters with a bad attitude and an evil plan. While I would have liked to get more back story on these intergalactic marauders, I realize the focus of the film is on the humans. Splitting the audiences’ attention between the townsfolk and the invaders would have taken too long and brought the narrative to a halt. Still, I was curious. Overall, the special effects, largely handled with computer generated graphics, merged seamlessly with the live action backgrounds and landscapes. The small fighter craft used by the aliens resembled a dragon fly with its wings side by side running up both sides of its body. The look of the alien technology gave the impression of having been designed to resemble the era in which the movie was set. Some may consider this a weakness, but it gave the film a symmetry that helped to merge the two genres.
While the landscapes of the great southwest are beautiful, there is a little too much of it in the film. We are shown a great deal of people riding horses in the scrub brush and desert. I realize there’s going to be some scenes on horseback, but the movie seems to be padding its runtime with a lot of riding from here to there, confrontation or flashback, then riding from there to here. Some of those scenes could have been condensed or cut entirely.
“Cowboys & Aliens” is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of western and sci-fi action and violence, some partial nudity and a brief crude reference. We see what appear to be the scalps of Native Americans tied to the saddles of some outlaws. There are numerous fights of the fist and gun variety. Craig’s face is splattered with the blood of a man he beats, although we do not see the actual beating. The nudity consists of Olivia Wilde’s back and the suggestion that she’s completely naked. There is some foul language but it is scattered.
My wife saw the TV commercial for “Cowboys & Indians” and asked a simple question: Why? I didn’t have a good answer. All I could say: Why not? These genre mash ups are becoming something of a fad and if one is successful, it will spawn more. Prior to the release of this film a big screen adaptation of both “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” and “Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter” were in the works. Perhaps, since this mash up was a graphic novel first, it made the transition to the cinema a little easier since the writers had a visual reference to go by. Whatever the attraction genre mixing has to Hollywood, if it doesn’t make enough money, it will go away. Considering this first effort, it may hang on for a while.
“Cowboys & Aliens” gets four guitars out of five.
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