Thursday, August 11, 2011
Cowboys & Aliens
Another slightly dated movie review; however, in this case, you probably haven’t seen Cowboys & Aliens yet, since not that many people did. This might be the best sci-fi/western hybrid movie ever made, since the only other one I can think of is Oblivion, which was not a high point of cinema, despite the presence of George Takei. That is assuming you don’t count Firefly/Serenity, which is science fiction with western themes rather than a western with science fiction themes. Confusing enough?
Jake Lonergan (Daniel Craig) wakes up in the desert, with no memory, a wound in his side and a strange metal device strapped to his wrist. He doesn’t remember his name, but he does know he is a badass, since he dispatches four desperadoes on the 10 o’clock train to Boot Hill. (Westerns bring this sort of thing out in me.) With newly acquired horses, weapons and clothes, he makes his way to the nearby town of Absolution. This turns out to be a bad choice, since Absolution is controlled by rich rancher and former Army Colonel Woodrow Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford) – and Lonergan robbed a stagecoach of money belonging to Dolarhyde. An encounter with Dolarhyde’s dimwitted jerk of a son (Paul Dano) lands both Lonergan and the son in jail, but not before Lonergan meets the enigmatic Ella (Olivia Wilde).
To this point, the movie hasn’t been that different from a traditional western, but then alien space craft start buzzing the town and abducting the townsfolk. Lonergan discovers his bracelet can fire energy blasts that can shoot down the alien aircraft, and he and Dolarhyde lead a posse in pursuit of the aliens, in order to recover the abductees.
All of this is not nearly as much fun as it sounds. Despite the title, the story is played deadly serious, and could have used more humor. Craig and Ford are playing the same character – the gruff tough guy with a secret good streak – and there needed to be more contrast for them to play off each other. The story also leaves no western trope untouched. In addition to the posse, Lonergan and Dolarhyde recruit Lonergan’s old criminal gang (in a scene reminiscent of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid) and an Apache tribe (after a spirit ceremony, reminiscent of almost every bad modern western). The chase after the aliens seems to take place in real time, and the movie slows down just when it needs to speed up.
The aliens have an improbable reason for coming to Earth and abducting yokels. Worst of all, when it comes time for the climactic battle between our heroes and the aliens, the aliens fight with their bare hands, completely nude. Space dudes! You have the technology to travel between the stars, beam up precious metals and create wrist-blasters. You should use that know-how on the guys with six-guns and bows & arrows. I suppose they are related to the ETs from Signs. It is also stated the aliens can’t see well in daylight (this is mentioned, but has absolutely no bearing on the plot in any way) but choose to come out of their dark tunnels to fight the heroes in sunlight.
The cast does the best they can with the limitations of the script. (Harrison Ford said when he read the script he “didn’t get it.” I feel your pain, Mr. Ford.) Craig makes a surprisingly good western hero, and I can’t help but think it would have been a better movie if the filmmakers had created a straight western, leaving out the sci-fi elements. There is a fairly impressive supporting cast, with Clancy Brown, Sam Rockwell, Keith Carradine and Walton Goggins. It is a particular crime that Carradine and Goggins weren’t given more to do.
All in all, Cowboys & Aliens is more interesting to consider as the movie it might have been than it is to watch the movie that was made.