Two movies, or rather two genres, for the price of one, “Cowboys and Aliens” blends together conventions and characters of sci-fi and Westerns, resulting in an unpretentious fun and unabashedly old-fashioned entertainment.
World premiering at San Diego’s Comic-Con, “Cowboys and Aliens,” which must be the ultimate popcorn flick of the summer, is released by Paramount on July 29. It remains to be seen how commercially successful the picture will be, surrounded as it is by comic book flicks, such as “Captain America; The First Avenger,” children’s fare, such as the new “Harry Potter,” and movies in which the protagonists are very young. in contrast, “Cowboys and Aliens’ is toplined by two vet, iconic stars, Daniel Craig, in his 40s, and Harrison Ford, well into his 60s.
Aptly titled, “Cowboys and Aliens” is by design a mishmash of a movie, known in the industry as “James Bond meets Han Solo,” “007 versus Indy” and “oater meets outer space,” due to the pairing of Daniel Craig (our cool 007 agent), who channels the young Clint Eastwood and evokes the look and charm of Steve McQueen (those blue eyes!), and Harrison Ford (still best known for the “Star Wars” and “Indiana Jones” smash hit series).
While the movie may be novel conceptually, essentially it tells a familiar story, which is far more effective as a Western than as a sci-fi, despite the state-of the art special and sound effects, which dominate the last reel of this overlong picture.
Adding to the densely incoherent, not always satisfying narrative, is the fact that no less than five or six writers have worked on the screenplay, and there is even a larger number producers and executive producers, including directors Spielberg and Ron Howard. Should they care, auteurist critics would have hard time determining whose vision, signature, and sensibility the movie reflects.
The screenplay, crafted by Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman, Damon Lindelof, Mark Fergus, Hawk Ostby, from a screen story by Fergus and Ostby and Steve Oedekerk, is based on Platinum Studios’ “Cowboys and Aliens” by Scott Mitchell Rosenberg (“Men in Black”). You can detect echoes of these writers’ previous works (Fergus’ Children of Men, Damon Linelof’s TV Lost, Oedekerk’s “Bruce Almighty”) in the yarn, which inevitably suffers from rough and awakward transitions from one subplot (and genre) to another.
Jon Favreau, who began his career with small indies, such as the cult film “Swingers,” before moving to comic book territory with the great “Iron Man” and the not so great “Iron Man 2,” shows knowledgable command of both cowboy and sci-fi thrillers to navigate among the various storylines, and he benefits immensely from the sharp imagery by Matthew Libatique, one of the most brilliant cinematographers working in Hollywood. As the text is often senseless, a good deal of the pleasure derived is strictly visual.
The tale is set in 1875, in the desert town of Absolution, New Mexico. Craig plays Jake Lonergan, a stranger suffering from amnesia. In a manner that recalls Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name, Craig is presumably a Man With No Past. When interrogated, he claims he has no memory of how he had stumbled into the desert. The only hint to his history is a mysterious shackle that encircles his wrist. Trying repeatedly to remove the metallic bracelet, he fails, which means that this object is endowed with magical powers and thus would be crucial to the plotting of the saga.
Though we suspect from the beginning that Jake is a wanted man, we keep guessing as to his past. Brief flashbacks, from Jake’s subjective POV, are inserted into the tale, but we are not sure how reliable they are. Seen in these recollection is Jake’s first, lost love, Alice, who’s is played by Abigail Spencer (of TV’s “Mad Men”).
Gradually, we are introduced to the other town’s inhabitants. The story is imbued with a heavy dosage of Freudian psychology in the father-son relationship between Harrison Ford’s patriarchal cattle baron Woodrow Dolarhyde and Paul Dano’s Percy, his cowardly, no-good boy. Careless and irresponsible, the youth provokes the wounded Jake, only to realize that the latter is still the tough, in control killer, with his physical skills intact.
All the figures in “Cowboys and Aliens” represent the prototypical characters (really archetypes) we expect to find in a classic Western. They include saloon owner Doc (Sam Rockwell), a fish out of water who needs to become a “real man,” and learn how to use a gun, and his beautiful Hispanic wife Maria (Ana de la Reguera). Then there is Colonel Dolarhyde’s reliable right-hand man, Nat Colorado (Adam Beach), who often appears out of nowhere.
No Western is true to its name without a preacher and a young character, who needs to absorb the lessons (and myths) of the Old West. Here they take the shape of the plain-spoken preacher Meacham (Clancy Brown), vet and rational sheriff John Taggart (Keith Carradine), and Emmett, the sheriff’s grandson (Noah Ringer).
Though from the start Absolution is depicted as a town that lives in perpetual fear and paranoia, things get worse, when the remote, desolate place is suddenly attacked by marauders from the sky. Mysterious alien-visitors, equipped with breathtaking velocity and blinding lights, begin to abduct the helpless and innocent citizens, one by one. Viewers were giglinh at the sight of men and women flying high into the skies in a cheesy image that is both funny and scary. (Pehaps intentionally, the whole movie has a hammy, cheesy nature of a B-picture, skillfully made with an A-budget and lavish production values, signalling that no one should be taking this stuff too seriously).
As a result, new coalitions are formed, guided by new set of values and mores, based on the realization that Jake, the rejected and despised outsider, may be the town’s only hope for salvation in fighting the nasty alien force.
In the yarn’s second half, gunslinger Jake starts to remember slowly–very slowly–who he is, what he’s experienced, and what the big secret of his life is. Helping him to recover his memory is a mysterious and beautiful femme fatale, Ella (Olivia Wilde), a traveler who initially is just as elusive as Jake is. (No more could be disclosed by way of plot or else the fun would be spoiled).
The last reel, which includes some fun battles and climactic showdowns, depicts the group dynamics of a new posse, which is comprised of former opponents, townsfolk, Dolarhyde and his band, various outlaws, and even Chiricahua Apache warriors. The wild bunch groups, separates, and regorups, in an almost arbitrary manner, and individual characters like the saloon keeper get to shoot.
Though Harrison Ford gets co-star billing, he plays a smaller role than Craig, and it takes some time for his character to make an appearance, not to mention get involved in the proceedings. Two or three decades ago, Ford would have played the lead, and it’s to his credit that he looks and behaves like a man of his age (mid-60s).
As a whole, the movie belongs to Craig, who must have studied all the Westerns made by Clint Eastwood as an actor and director. In some scenes, he is positioned and shot by Favreau to look like and project the tough, stoned-face image that Eastwood evoked in its toughest and coolest at its prime.
The least successful character (and performance) is Ella, played by Olivia Wilde, which might be a function of the writing, which turns her from a rival to an ally to a love interest and back again. There are more twists and turns in Ella’s storyline than in the case of the other persona.
In preparation for the picture, Spielberg showed the cast and crew John Ford’s seminal Western from 1956, “The Searchers,” featuring John Wayne’s best performance. However, thematically, “Cowboys and Aliens” recalls other classic Westerns, such as Howard Hawks’ “Rio Bravo” and its sequels, “3:10 to Yuma,” which was recently remade by James Mangold, and others.
Craig, however, claimed that he was influenced more by Eastwood’s Westerns of the 1970s, such as “The Outlaw Josey Wales,” and the 1992 Oscar-winner “Unforgiven.”
Exec-producer Spielberg has said that the most surprising thing about this project is that no one has done it before. It’s safe to predict that if “Cowboys and Aliens” is commercially viable at the box-office, namely, grosses more than $100 million, there will be more hybrids of different genres, which combine unlikely and unsuitable bedfellows. One such picture, “Price and Prejudice and Zombies,” is already in the works. Hollywood is nothing if not a recycling storytelling machine.
As a tribute to the Duke, Brenda Wayne, John Wayne’s real-life grandson, plays the Deputy Sheriff Lyle.
Jake Lonergan – Daniel Craig
Woodrow Dolarhyde – Harrison Ford
Ella Swenson – Olivia Wilde
Doc – Sam Rockwell
Nat Colorado – Adam Beach
Percy Dolarhyde – Paul Dano
Emmett Taggart – Noah Ringer
Sheriff John Taggart – Keith Carradine
Meacham – Clancy Brown
A Universal release presented with DreamWorks-Reliance Entertainment presentation.
Produced by Brian Grazer, Ron Howard, Alex Kurtzman, Roberto Orci, Scott Mitchell Rosenberg.
Executive producers, Steven Spielberg, Jon Favreau, Denis L. Stewart, Bobby Cohen, Randy Greenberg, Ryan Kavanaugh.
Co-producers, Chris Wade, Dan Forcey, Karen Gilchrist, K.C. Hodenfield.
Directed by Jon Favreau.
Screenplay, Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman, Damon Lindelof, Mark Fergus, Hawk Ostby; screen story, Fergus, Ostby, Steve Oedekerk, based on Platinum Studios’ “Cowboys and Aliens” by Scott Mitchell Rosenberg.
Camera, Matthew Libatique.
Editors, Dan Lebental, Jim May.
Music, Harry Gregson-Williams.
Production designer, Scott Chambliss; supervising art director, Chris Burian-Mohr; art director, Lauren Polizzi; set decorator, Karen Manthey.
Costume designer, Mary Zophres.
Sound, Mark Ulano; sound designers, Christopher Boyes, David Farmer; supervising sound editor, Frank Eulner; re-recording mixers, Boyes, Lora Hirschberg; alien character and effects designer, Legacy Effects; special effects supervisor, Dan Sudick; visual effects supervisor, Roger Guyett; visual effects, Industrial Light & Magic, the Embassy Visual Effects, Ghost VFX, Fuel VFX, Shade FX, the Garage VFX
MPAA Rating: PG-13.
Running time: 118 Minutes.