Cowboys and Aliens
Cowboys and Aliens is not a subtle film. Cowboys and Aliens will never be mistaken for a subtle film. To be honest, Cowboys and Aliens is about three days hard riding from subtle. Like Hobo with a Shotgun (well, there’s this hobo and he has a shotgun…), Dead Hooker In A Trunk (well, there’s dead hooker and she’s in the trunk of a car…), Snakes on a Plane (well, there’s these snakes and they’re on a plane…) and Shaving Ryan’s Privates (well, there’s this guy called Ryan…), Cowboys and Aliens is the latest in a long line of thumpingly obvious movies that are defined purely by their titles and do exactly what it says on the tin.
Which isn’t to say Cowboys and Aliens isn’t entertaining. It is. The first half probably more than the second. But imagine a world of nothing but thumpingly obvious movie titles: Captain America would become Steroid Freak Punches Nazis, ET would become Mamma’s Boy Finds Alien, The Sixth Sense could be Ghost Psychiatrist, Watchmen would be Look At The Size Of That Big Blue Wang! and Lesbian Vampire Killers would definitely be Steaming Pile Of Crap. Some titles just tell you everything you need to know about a film.
A man (Daniel Craig) wakes up, bloody and battered in the desert. In keeping with Western tradition, our hero has no name. He also has no memory and a weird metal shackle-like bracelet around his wrist. Almost immediately, he encounters a trio of murderous bounty hunters whom he quickly sends to the Happy Hunting Ground in an Old West meets Jason Bourne-style, relieving them of their clothes, guns and horses. Riding into town, our hero finds he’s a wanted outlaw, Jake Lonergan, and just as he’s about to be lynched by scenery-chewing local rancher Colonel Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford) a squadron of UFOs show up, blast hell out of the town and kidnap a bunch of townspeople, Dolarhyde’s no-good son (Paul Dano) among them, while Jake’s bracelet turns into a laser gun that allows him to shoot down one of the spaceships. Putting aside their personal enmity, Jake and Dolarhyde must work together to lead a rag-tag bunch of frontier stereotypes (Clancy Brown’s gruff preacher, Olivia Wilde’s saloon girl with a secret, Sam Rockwell’s tenderfoot bartender, Adam Beach’s obligatory noble Injun scout) on a mission to save their loved ones and kick some alien butt.
And that really is pretty much that. It does exactly what it says on the tin. Rip-roaring, rousing entertainment and nothing more, Cowboys and Aliens offers absolutely no surprises. It’s a big, dumb Summer popcorn movie and a damn good one. But that’s all it is. Which is a real shame as it has ideas to burn. Which is exactly what it does with them. With his lack of name, back-story and alien gizmo attached to his arm, Daniel Craig’s mysterious hero could have been an 1870’s Klaatu, the film an intriguing mix of High Plains Drifter and The Day The Earth Stood Still, but any possibility of anything that interesting rides South as soon as he rides into town and finds out he’s actually a famous (human) outlaw.
Yet another comic book adaptation, Cowboys and Aliens disappointingly squanders its rich source material. The original 2006 comic spent as much time in the alien camp as it did with the humans and it’s broadly satirical subtext commented on America’s sense of Manifest Destiny, the aliens exploiting and subjugating the humans in a similar fashion to the way the white European settlers exploited and subjugated the indigenous peoples. And it had horses with anti-gravity horseshoes allowing the humans to take the fight to the aliens.
The film however ditches the comic book entirely; out goes the political subtext and characterisation in favour of cliché and empty spectacle. Despite being technologically advanced and able to fly across the galaxy, the aliens in Cowboys and Aliens are yet another non-descript retread of the aliens from Independence Day; 9-feet tall, bit lizardy, bit gooey, not very communicative. Virtually impervious to bullets but seemingly pretty vulnerable to Apache arrows and a kid with a pocket-knife, they never really feel like too much of a tangible threat. They do seem to be quite good sports though as despite having bracelets that can shoot down flying saucers, they take the humans on in hand-to-claw combat rather than just blowing them back to the Stone Age.
While the film more than does justice to it’s Western pedigree and the battles are exciting in a blood-and-thunder formulaic way, the script shows a general lack of imagination (imagination being something that’s kinda crucial in a sci-fi movie) that’s indicative of producer Steven Spielberg’s influence rather than Iron Man director Jon Favreau’s. Story and character have never been Spielberg’s strengths, he’s always been more interested in kids with daddy issues, and his forays into sci-fi in the past have always been great right up until we meet the aliens who are normally as dumb as a bag of hammers and a bit of a letdown. Let’s face it; ET‘s botanist aliens may have had a spaceship but they were too dumb to invent trousers or to notice they had left without one of their crew members while the childlike Greys of Close Encounters had been tooling around Earth for decades, kidnapping people and trying to talk to us with a Moog, but at the end of the film are quite happy to leave the party with Richard Dreyfuss’s doofus Whichita Lineman rather than scientist Francois Truffaut (one of the fathers of the French New Wave and a thoroughly fascinating chap) who’s standing right next to him. Aliens in Spielberg movies; they’re just not rocket scientists.
The cast though are obviously having fun playing the threadbare stereotypes the script gives them instead of characters. Clancy Brown as every gruff, gun-toting preacher you’ve ever seen in Westerns wouldn’t seem out of place in a John Ford movie while Sam Rockwell’s tenderfoot is every cultured intelligent man who’s ever been forced to pick up the gun since The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Olivia Wilde is beautiful and enigmatic as the beautiful and enigmatic saloon girl, more than holding her own in the action scenes, while Harrison Ford is having a whale of a time as the brutal Ahab-like Dolarhyde, his entire performance a loving pastiche of John Wayne’s in The Searchers, a Western classic Cowboys and Aliens is deeply indebted to.
Though he’s always proved rather a boring Bond (too po-faced, too tortured, too humourless, too blond), Daniel Craig owns the film as the laconic hero, convincing kin to Clint Eastwood and Steve McQueen. His craggy good looks could have been hewn from Mount Rushmore itself, ice-cold blue eyes twinkling under his Stetson, the tension and coiled physicality of his performance suggesting a man of violence, barely holding himself in check. There’s a fantastic moment when after lassoing an alien ship and being dragged through the air, Craig turns to Olivia Wilde, his eyes filled with wonder and says; “We flew.” Moments like this and the scene where the posse come across an upside-down paddle steamer marooned in the desert (a visual nod to Close Encounters) hint at the film Cowboys and Aliens could have been.
Fast, funny and completely preposterous, Cowboys and Aliens is undemanding fun. Leave your brain at the door and be entertained. If nothing else, it’s good to have Harrison Ford back in a hat.
Daniel Craig, Harrison Ford, Olivia Wilde, Sam Rockwell, Clancy Brown, Walton Goggins, Keith Carradine, Paul Dano, Adam Beach
Damon Lindelof, Alex Kurtzmann, Robert Orci, Scott Mitchell Rosenberg, Hawk Ostby, Mark Fergus, Steve Oedekerk