Jul 1, 2020
Cowboys & Aliens (2011)
[Note from the editor: This review is by prospective staff writer Rob Kirchgassner. Be sure to check out his blog!]
In recent decades, westerns have had a spotty track record, to say the least. When the classic western Unforgiven was released in 1992, I saw numerous articles saying that the genre was coming back in all its glory. Many big-screen and small-screen westerns were on the drawing board. Some of these, such as Tombstone and Maverick proved successful, but most did not.
More recently, Quentin Tarantino’s pseudo-western Django Unchained was a hit at the box office, winning Oscars for Christoph Waltz and Tarantino’s screenplay. But any hopes that the western had returned were dashed again thanks to last year’s flop The Lone Ranger.
Before Django, however, there was 2011’s Cowboys & Aliens, which was an adaptation of the graphic novel of the same name by Scott Mitchell Rosenberg. Sadly, this film proved that even throwing space aliens into the mix could not make westerns viable for studios in this day and age.
The movie begins in 1873 in what is now New Mexico. An amnesiac who we later learn is named Jake Lonergan (Daniel Craig) wakes up in the desert with a strange bracelet on his wrist that won’t come off. Like all amnesiacs in movies like this, he instantly realizes he’s tougher than he remembers, and swiftly kills three drifters who come upon him and try to steal his bracelet.
Taking their clothing and weapons, Lonergan goes into the bizarrely named town of Absolution, where his wounds are treated by a preacher named Meacham (Clancy Brown). Over in the center of town, a drunkard named Percy Dolarhyde (Paul Dano) terrorizes the townspeople, and needless to say, Lonergan mops the floor with him, too.
This leads to the local sheriff (Keith Carradine) recognizing Longergan as an outlaw wanted for various crimes. He attempts to arrest Lonergan, who resists and fights back, only to get knocked out when a woman named Ella Swenson (Olivia Wilde) strikes him on the head with the butt of her pistol.
Lonergan is locked up, with Percy Dolarhyde as his cellmate. As the two await trial, the latter’s father, wealthy cattleman Col. Woodrow Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford) arrives, demanding the release of his son. He also wants Lonergan turned over to him for stealing his gold.
That’s when the aliens make their first appearance, with their spaceships hovering over Absolution, blasting away at the town. Many townspeople, including Percy and the sheriff, are caught by whip-like devices on the bottom of the ships (resisting the urge to make a sexual joke here). But then the bracelet on Lonergan’s wrist comes in handy, and he’s able to fire an energy beam that disables one of the ships.
The damaged spaceship crashes in the middle of town, and the alien pilot escapes. So the Colonel and Ella round up a posse to track down the alien. But Lonergan, who’s split off from the group for some reason, goes to an empty log cabin. He flashes back to being there with a woman named Alice (Abigail Spencer) and showing her the gold he stole. She’s outraged and tells him to return it, but then aliens crash through the roof of the cabin and abduct them both.
Back in the present, Lonergan joins the Colonel’s posse, and they set up camp. During the night, the escaped alien appears and kills Meacham.
By the morning, most of the posse has deserted them, and by an amazing coincidence, they’re soon attacked by Lonergan’s former gang. It seems they’re here to exact revenge upon him for stealing the ill-gotten gains of their previous heist.
The aliens attack again, and this time, they grab Ella. To remind us that he’s the hero, Lonergan jumps onto the ship to save her. He causes the ship to crash into the water, and the alien pilot fights them and critically injures Ella.
And then the movie remembers this is a western as well as a sci-fi film when a group of Apache Indians show up to capture our heroes, blaming them (for some reason) for the alien invasion.
The Indians intend to cremate Ella, tossing her body onto a campfire. Suddenly, the flames explode and Ella is standing there resurrected (and naked). As it turns out, she’s a member of another alien race, who’s here to help Earth after her own homeworld was invaded and destroyed.
She explains that the invaders, interestingly, have come to Earth to mine gold. And also, not as interestingly, they’re capturing humans to perform experiments on them.
Lonergan then remembers that the aliens killed his woman Alice after they were done experimenting on her. They almost killed him too, but he managed to steal one of the aliens’ weapons (the bracelet) and then escape. Also in this flashback, he remembers that the aliens’ mothership landed out in the desert, and he knows exactly where to find it.
He then convinces his old gang to join Dolarhyde’s posse in an assault on the alien mothership.
Following in the footsteps of such illustrious sci-fi epics as Independence Day and The Phantom Menace, the ship’s defenses don’t take long to penetrate, and the humans blow up the shuttle bay. As the cowboys fight the aliens (hey, the title does not lie), Lonergan and Ella free all the alien abductees still being held on the ship. After this, Dolarhyde joins them, and he and Lonergan take down the alien that killed Alice.
Just as the ship is about to take off, Ella destroys it with Lonergan’s bracelet, sacrificing herself.
The just-released abductees are reunited with their loved ones (I liked this film better when it was called Close Encounters of the Third Kind). Meanwhile, the sheriff and Dolarhyde decide to let Lonergan walk away a free man (don’t movie outlaws always get all the breaks?) by telling people he was killed in the battle.
As the town begins to rebuild, Lonergan, in typical western fashion, rides off into the sunset.
The film certainly had promise, beginning with its director, Jon Favreau, who previously scored with Made, Elf, and the first Iron Man. He even rejected the idea of shooting the film in 3-D, because he felt that westerns are a classic movie genre and should be presented in old-fashioned 2-D. I doubt it would have made any difference one way or another, but given the current 3-D overload in theaters, Favreau deserves credit for having more than pure spectacle on his mind.
The movie was even touted in some quarters as a virtual team-up between Indiana Jones and the current James Bond (who, to me, is a less than ideal Bond—I guess I’m the only person who thought Skyfall was just okay).
Many were disappointed with this film, but I found it enjoyable, if predictable. Perhaps it was that predictability which prevented it from becoming the smash some thought it would be.
Which is a shame, as Harrison Ford and Daniel Craig both look at home in their cowboy garb and work well together. Ford in particular actually looks like he’s enjoying himself, as opposed to other not-so-stellar appearances in recent movies like Ender’s Game and Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (which, let’s face it, only made money for the same reason the Star Wars prequels made money, even if it was much more enjoyable than those three films).
Another plus is that the aliens themselves are nicely done (thanks to Legacy Effects and ILM, among others), if not exactly on par with those in District 9, which was reportedly the inspiration for the creatures’ designs here.
This film’s problem, though, is that it’s a fun way to pass the time but nothing more. Cowboys & Aliens doesn’t attempt to do anything surprising. It’s simply content with being a standard action film. And like most action films, it doesn’t take long for us to figure out who will survive and who won’t, or for us to meet characters who are forced to put aside their differences and work together, and of course there’s the main character and the love interest who take until the end of the film to figure out what we all knew from the beginning: that they belong together.
True to the title, the movie does give you cowboys, and it does give you aliens, but not a whole heck of a lot else. Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised that the screenplay is from Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci, best known for writing the two recent Star Trek films. Those films, while financially successful, are not held in high esteem by many Trek fans, and with good reason: they’re basically just action films set in space with no real regard for the source material. Cowboys & Aliens takes the same approach as their two Trek movies; at one point, they actually referred to it as “Unforgiven with aliens landing.”
I wonder if they just picked the same of a classic western out of a hat when coming up with this description, because part of the greatness of Unforgiven is that it’s a journey into Clint Eastwood’s character and his search for redemption. This aspect of the story helped it earn a place among the great westerns. Cowboys & Aliens doesn’t offer such personal drama. Craig may play an outlaw, but he definitely doesn’t go through hell (personal or otherwise) for his past the way Clint’s Will Munny did. If this movie did have any conflict like that, it might have actually distinguished itself from other sci-fi action movies and been a lot more memorable.
One wonders if Kurtzman and Orci even watch the finished versions of the movies they write before making such, shall we say, interesting statements.