Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Jon Favreau
Stars: Daniel Craig, Harrison Ford, Paul Dano, Keith Carradine, Olivia Wilde, Sam Rockwell, Noah Ringer.
As a genre the traditional western is virtually moribund, but Hollywood keeps churning out some interesting variations on the theme that temporarily breathe life into the form. The latest is Cowboys & Aliens, and the title basically says all you need to know.
Imagine the likes of iconic hero John Wayne taking on aliens, and you’ll get the drift! It’s The Searchers meets Independence Day as the film combines the usual tropes and mythology of the western genre with a healthy anachronistic dose of science fiction. Posses armed with six shooters take on alien creatures, spaceships and futuristic weaponry in this entertaining mash-up of the traditional western and sci-fi genres. And the gimmick succeeds where the likes of the misguided sci-fi/western Wild Wild West failed.
The film is based on the graphic novel written by Scott Mitchell Rosenberg, and the script has been circulating around Hollywood for some years trying to find a producer canny enough to tackle it. No less than six writers have worked on the script, including Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman (the recent Star Trek reboot, etc); Damon Lindelof (Lost, etc); Mark Fergus and Hawk Ostby (Iron Man, etc), who have mainly worked in the sci-fi genre; and Steve Oedekerk, who is better known for comedies like Ace Ventura, etc. Normally when so many writers have a hand in writing the result is a disjointed mess; but surprisingly enough here it seems to work well.
The setting is Arizona, 1875 and the film starts like a traditional western with a stranger wandering into town. Daniel Craig plays an outlaw who wakes up in the middle of nowhere with no memory of how he came to be there. He also has a mysterious metallic bracelet around his wrist, which turns out to be a powerful alien ray gun.
When he arrives in the nearby town of Absolution, he is arrested by the sheriff (Keith Carradine) after a run in with the local bully Percy (Paul Dano). He discovers that his name is Jake Lonergan and that he is wanted for robbery. But before he can be handed over to the federal authorities, the town is suddenly attacked by strange flying machines. Several of the townsfolk are snatched up by the machines and whisked away, and this is when the film moves into sci-fi territory.
Lonergan and tyrannical cattle baron Woodrow Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford) are forced to bury their mutual dislike and distrust to organise a posse and track down these alien attackers. They uncover a spacecraft full of aliens that are mining gold in them there hills and experimenting on their human prisoners.
The characters are archetypes of the genre, but they are brought to life by the solid cast. Performances are uniformly good, and they play the essentially preposterous material straight.
Ford is getting a bit too old to play the action hero so its left up to Daniel Craig to do most of the heavy lifting in the action sequences. Nonetheless Ford, typically humourless, grizzled and sporting uncharacteristic stubble, still brings plenty of authority and his formidable screen reputation to his role as the tough cattle baron. Craig has a strong, rugged presence that is suited to the physical demands of his role as the taciturn villain who rises to heroic status.
Sam Rockwell plays the milquetoast saloon keeper who gains his courage during the confrontation with the aliens. Olivia Wilde adds a touch of beauty to this masculine genre with her role as Ellie, a mysterious woman who seems to know more about these extraterrestrial visitors than she is admitting. Dano brings his usual whining quality to his performance as Dolarhyde’s spoiled bullying son, who has also been captured by the aliens. And yes, that is the Last Airbender himself, Noah Ringer, as the sheriff’s grandson who quickly grows up when confronting the aliens in the climactic showdown.
With films like Iron Man to his credit, Jon Favreau has proven himself a dab hand at special effects laden films, and he handles the visuals superbly. He directs the material with a sense of fun, and there are some wonderful in-jokes and one-liners sprinkled throughout.
Cowboys & Aliens is great fun, and crowd-pleasing stuff which should appeal to fans of both genres. The special effects are quite good, and the CGI created slimy aliens owe a debt to the creatures created by H R Geiger for Ridley Scott’s classic Alien. Matthew Libatique’s cinematography makes excellent use of the New Mexico locations to add authenticity. And Henry Gregson William’s rousing score is evocative of some of the classic western scores from Elmer Bernstein.
And thankfully the producers (including Steven Spielberg, Ron Howard and Brian Grazer) have resisted the temptation to produce a 3D version.