COWBOYS AND ALIENS. Starring Daniel Craig, Harrison Ford, Olivia Wilde and Sam Rockwell. Directed by Jon Favreau. 118 minutes. Rated M (Science fiction themes and violence).
Almost fifty years ago there was the absurdly specific title, Santa Claus vs the Martians. That was quite a juxtaposition. Cowboys and Aliens seems an absurd title, not so specific. In the past there were these small science-fiction-fantasy B-budget entertainments. Now we have the A-budget, A-cast entertainment that takes the old conventions of the western and the old convention s of those 1950s alien invasion melodramas, put them together and, presto, Cowboys and Aliens.
Not that it isn’t a holiday entertainment, an upmarket throwback to the old serials and matinees days. And who to give it some respectability? The present grim-faced James Bond himself, Daniel Craig and Indiana Jones, now a grizzled, gruff and raspy Harrison Ford. Actor Jon Favreau directed the two Iron Man movies.
It all opens in the old West, but we have an immediate clue when we see the 21st century wristband that Jake Lonergan (Craig) is wearing. But, the screenplay wisely keeps tantalising us. We wonder about this man, at first with no name and no memory, whether he is the alien. We get hints as the film goes on. An explanation (perfectly logical in the circumstances) towards the end of the film.
Then there are plenty of cowboys, toughs and robbers, cattle hands and cattle barons (Ford is the patriarchal baron), the western town, the sheriff (Keith Carradine), the wastrel son of the baron (Paul Dano) who likes to throw his somewhat puny weight around, and his Indian minder (Adam Beach). There is a mysterious woman, Ella (Olivia Wilde) who is clearly something more than she seems. After some western standoffs and arrests, the aliens get going on the town, mystifying one and all. Suddenly, in this war of the worlds where revolvers don’t stand a chance against space ships, individuals are being instantly swooped and swept into the air and into the spacecraft. And there are lots, LOTS, of explosions.
That obviously means a posse has to go in pursuit and the lone hero has to show his mettle. There are confrontations with the Indians, but this is a 21st century perception of the 19th, so the Indians combine forces with the cowboys (and the racist baron) to rescue the human hostages and destroy the aliens. The aliens themselves look like beings straight out of the old movies, no glamour, just monstrous (especially in size and in close-ups). We discover their dastardly plan and are ready to cheer on the goodies against these creatures (the word ‘alien’ not being available at that time to describe what is going on).
This is a close encounter of the reverse kind.
What we have is a bit popcorn holiday movie and it has its moments. The thought came while watching the familiar elements of both western and science fiction that it still had quite some originality – but a derivative originality. And, deciding on this phrase to end the review, I enjoyed it all the more.
Fr Peter Malone MSC is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.
Released August 18, 2011.