Not quite the ‘serious Western’ it purported to be, but still a rip-roaring mix of War of the Worlds and Wild West that covers all its bases.
“It’s called Cowboys & Aliens, the clue’s in the title,” joked director Jon Favreau at the UK premiere of the movie at London’s O2. “It does what it says on the tin, I think that’s the UK expression,” he added.
It’s the notion of making a ‘serious’ Western that apparently drew in the top talent Harrison Ford and Daniel Craig, but as Favreau rightly acknowledges, this film is about combining two previously distinct genres. While it achieves this mixing of as many crowd-pleasing elements of Western and sci-fi as possible, what makes this film more interesting beyond the obvious nods to others in each respective canon is the use of obvious Western themes within the alien genre.
From the word go, when the bloodied and confused Jake Lonergan (Daniel Craig) wakes with no idea who he is or what has happened to him, and a mysterious bracelet on his forearm, the journey of a stranger into unknown territory begins. His arrival in the town of Absolution (where else would he end up?), where he roughs up Percy (Paul Dano), the bullying son of untouchable local cattle-owner Woodrow Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford), leads to a first glimpse of wanton violence, lawlessness and, moreover, paranoia and mistrust.
Craig joked at the UK premiere that he was humbled to be following Ford onto the stage, but the first on-screen encounter is typically Western-brutal, with the tough guy Lonergan giving as good as he gets against Dolarhyde Sr, the man who runs the town and has the sheriff in his pocket.
Where it gets interesting is that the aliens arriving in their destructive flying ships quickly supersede the local bullies, stagecoach robbers and gunslingers as the unknown indefensible terror in the night, killing, lassoing and abducting prisoners from the town, War of the Worlds-style, and disappearing, leaving a trail of destruction.
All the disparate sections of the local community – the mobs, townsfolk (including the old favourites of a timid bar owner, a philosophical preacher, wide-eyed boy and so on), Indians and all – are forced to come together to fight the aliens as they attack and kill for all the gold that they can maraude through space and time to get their hands on. (At least this is the inference, the aliens and who they really are lay on the sidelines of the story.) Not least, the grudging Dolarhyde and Lonergan are thrown together like Clint Eastwood and Lee Van Cleef to reach a common goal.
Another enigma in their midst is almond-eyed beauty Ella (Olivia Wilde), whose presence is a mystery, only explained later in what amounts to a sideshow to the main story and which doesn’t quite add up.
I don’t know how much influence executive producer Steven Spielberg had on the film, but there are echoes of classic Spielberg… a sense of discomfort and family dysfunction, of trying to remember and of confused feelings: think Richard Dreyfuss’s Roy Neary in Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Elliott in ET the Extra-Terrestrial (oh, and the dog with the sixth sense that befriends Lonergan also echoes Elliott’s dog Harvey in ET); the paranoia in the camp and unseen terror wreaked by the aliens are also reminiscent of Dennis Weaver sweating in a truck stop café in Duel.
More straightforward alien peril reminds you of the children hiding from the velociraptors in Jurassic Park; screaming, lowing monsters seeking out the breathless, wide-eyed boy Emmett (Noah Ringer) as he hides just feet away from them. The aliens are suitably base, disgusting, brutal and horrible-looking; ET they ain’t.
Despite the on-screen brilliance of Ford, Craig is the big presence throughout. He still doesn’t quite shake the Bond image, especially when the indomitable Ella is in tow giving as good as she gets like Bond’s girl, and he displays the same mixture of cocksure, violent killer and vulnerable human being that he has often lent his portrayal of 007.
The ending, without giving anything away, is pure Indiana Jones; Lonergan even manages to drop/rescue his hat during one flight from danger. You’ll guess the end before it happens, but this detracts from the enjoyment not at all.
Above all, if you’re looking for the old Western elements of redemption and forgiveness at the end of the film, here they are in spades. OK, the ending itself is a bit silly and clichéd, and some of the plot – how the aliens came to be there, and particularly the part involving Wilde’s character – doesn’t quite work.
But the fact that Cowboys & Aliens does what it says on the tin, and doesn’t ask for forgiveness, is what redeems it too.
Cowboys & Aliens is out in US cinemas now and is released in the UK on August 17. For further release dates, click here.
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