The premise and story of Cowboys and Aliens is preposterous. It’s easily as outlandish as the premise of Source Code, but Cowboys and Aliens is far better because it doesn’t jump the tracks and try to make the premise more than it has any right to be.
Here’s a preview:
Released on July 26th, 2011
Written by Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman, Damon Lindelof, Mark Fergus, Hawk Ostby, and Steve Oedekerk
Directed by Jon Favreau
Starring Daniel Craig, Harrison Ford, Olivia Wilde, Adam Beach, Paul Dano and Sam Rockwell
* * * *
The movie start with Daniel Craig waking up in the middle of a New Mexico wasteland. He doesn’t know he is, has a strange wound on his side, and also has a strange contraption attached to his wrist. He can’t get the thing off.
Within the first couple of minutes, this guy’s toughness and meanness are established, as he finishes off a trio of prairie scum without blinking. He takes their clothes, weapons, and dog.
Soon after showing up in the town of Absolution, he is stitched up by a local preacher and finds out that he is named Jake Lonergan. After standing up to Percy Dolarhyde (Paul Dano), the bully son of local cattle baron Woodrow Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford), Lonergan gets a drink in the saloon run by Doc (Sam Rockwell). It is there that a mysterious and beautiful woman, Ella (Olivia Wilde), recognizes that Jake may be the key to some strange goings on.
Then the sheriff arrives, reveals that Lonergan is a wanted criminal, and tries to take Jake in. Jake shows he is a scrapper and is only taken down because he doesn’t see Ella coming. Now the sheriff has Percy and Jake in custody and is going to ship them off to a court in a different town.
Meanwhile, Dolarhyde is trying to find out why a bunch of his cattle have been charcoaled. He finds out from his faithful man, Nat Colorado (Adam Beach), that Percy’s been arrested. So Dolarhyde goes to retrieve his boy.
While all this is going on, Jake has been having flashbacks that allude to his being in love with a woman but that she was taken from him suddenly.
And now the set-up is complete. Dolarhyde shows up to get Percy, sees Lonergan and wants him too because Lonergan and some old cronies stole a bunch of gold from him, and then the aliens show up. A frenzied scene of explosions, wildly cool alien versions of aliens lassoing humans, and Jake finding out that his wrist band is a weapon, ensues. Percy is taken, as are Doc’s wife, the sheriff and many other townspeople.
The menfolk, along with Ella and the sheriff’s grandson and the dog, decide to work together to find all of their abducted people before they die. Add to that the fact that an alien survived having its ship shot down by Jake’s fancy weapon and now the alien is heading back to its headquarters, but it’s also hunting them, and you have some nice conflict.
There is also conflict between Dolarhyde and Lonergan, although that settles down fairly quickly as the two men prove their mettle to each other. The Ella character adds some mystery to the film, as do questions of why the aliens are there and what they want the people for. You won’t be surprised by the aliens’ motivation.
Cowboys and Aliens is a pleasure to watch. The performances are so very good, with Ford delivering a performance that is easily one of his best. Ever. Craig does an excellent job with his taciturn character, making him much deeper than anger and frustration. Olivia Wilde does a nice job, giving her inhumanly beautiful character humanity and motivation. Finally, Sam Rockwell and Paul Dano turn potentially by-the-numbers characters into interesting people who we want to know more about.
I have to applaud the writers (all of them… whew!) for some restraint. There were times where one-off lines would have been easy to have the characters say. But the dialogue rang true to the characters and there were no cheap shots. What’s more, the screenplay plays it straight, as do the actors. Any goofiness, such as in Galaxy Quest, would have killed the movie on arrival.
Another highlight is the locations. Too often, the towns in westerns are inauthentically laid out. Absolution looked perfect. Plus, the fact that some of the movie was obviously filmed in parts of Utah was pretty cool.
Cowboys and Aliens had the potential to be very silly, or quite schizophrenic. There was a danger that the filmmakers not be able to stay true to both the Western genre and the Sci-Fi genre. Luckily, none of this came to pass. The movie is fun, interesting, engaging and quite satisfying.
Content warnings: Plenty of gunfighting and action. Some explosions too. Some western-style harsh language. One almost-nude scene.
Writing: 4.5 Acting: 4.5 Overall: 4.5
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