REVIEW: Cowboys & Aliens [2011]

Score: 8/10 | ★ ★ ★

Rating: PG-13 | Runtime: 119 minutes | Release Date: July 29th, 2011 (USA)
Studio: Universal Pictures
Director(s): Jon Favreau
Writer(s): Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman & Damon Lindelof and Mark Fergus & Hawk Ostby /
Mark Fergus & Hawk Ostby and Steve Oedekerk (story) /
Scott Mitchell Rosenberg (Platinum Studios comic book)

“God don’t care who you were, son. Only who you are.”

Talk about a crowded writers’ room. With its fair share of ‘ands’ and ‘&s’ denoting who teamed with who and who came after who—Steve Oedekerk? Really? Did they originally adapt this as a potty humor comedy?—I’m going to put the onus of success on creator Scott Mitchell Rosenberg. One could argue we’ve had enough comic book adaptations, the medium being pilfered and yet seemingly endless, but sometimes a unique vision exists amongst the derivatives. Cowboys & Aliens is one such tome, positing aliens into a time we wouldn’t expect. How could the Wild West stand a chance against high-powered lasers and flying machines when they have yet to see an airplane and have the equivalent to a cap gun at their side? You’d have to be crazy to even think about merging these two worlds, the predator practically invincible.

So, what do you do to even the playing field? You put an alien tech weapon onto the wrist of an amnesiac badass and throw him into the fray. Jake Lonergan (Daniel Craig) doesn’t know his name let alone the fact metal warships have been flying through the country, lassoing unsuspecting humans up into the sky. All he remembers is his language, a survivor’s instinct, and the muscle memory to pretty much disarm, maim, or kill anyone who even looks at him sideways. Right from the start, a bloody wound gaping at his side, we know this cowboy is a Man with a capital ‘M’; pain a mere inconvenience, the quest for answers a necessity, not a choice. When he dispatches with the three hillbillies threatening to snatch him up for reward money, it is only the beginning of things to come. The sweat and dirt forever caked into his pores are the least of his worries, though. Soon the unexplainable will arrive without warning.

It’s in the hardnosed town a few miles away that Lonergan begins to find some answers. Poor, rundown, and populated by some unsavory folk, we’re introduced to one of the few gentle souls in Reverend Meacham (Clancy Brown). Dressing his wound and giving a compassionate hand, this man of God spouts the clichés of second chances, beating us over the head with sermon but also staying relevant to the situation. Just outside his window pops the gunshots of a spoiled brat without purpose, the perfect victim for Jake to make his attitude known. The reverend does his best to diffuse young Percy Dolarhyde’s (Paul Dano) tantrum, but without help from a town fearing the boy’s father Woodrow (Harrison Ford), an ex-Colonel in the Civil War and current cattle rancher who brings in the revenue to keep this beat-up street alive, there is little he can do. Fortunately, Lonergan has no such trepidation in making his presence known, not knowing Sheriff Taggart (Keith Carradine) has a Wanted poster with his face at the jail.

In shackles and about to be transported to Federal holding, Jake sees his first alien attack through the bars of a police wagon. The metallic bracelet at his hand lights up and pulsates, knowing what’s speeding towards them, ill will and destruction their only goal. Fire rains down as storefronts burn; innocent civilians watch immobile while their loved ones are harnessed and pulled into the air, kidnapped in the blink of an eye. And it is here where the divisions of good and bad blur together into one of human solidarity. Between the Colonel’s leadership skills in war, the townsfolk’s desire to reclaim their families, a mysterious woman named Ella (Olivia Wilde) who knows more than she lets on, and Lonergan’s fighting prowess mixed with the only weapon that can dent the armor of the dragonfly spaceships, this ragtag bunch of cowboys may have a fighting chance.

Jon Favreau then ushers these characters through a journey of redemption and heroism, infusing his constantly improved directing skills with the adventurous, humorous, and very authentic western put to page by Orci, Kurtzman, Lindelof, Fergus, and Ostby—summer blockbuster regulars, all. The dusty deserts of the west become another character to the film along with the time period and stringent rules inherent with both. There is no Air Force to swoop down with atomic bombs, no Marine Corps trained in technological warfare. All humanity has at its disposal to prevent an alien invasion is a washed up old man—Ford is fantastic as both the hardened warrior and the compassionate father buried within—his Native American employee who thinks of him as more than just a boss, Nat (Adam Beach); Emmett (Noah Ringer), a young boy looking for his grandfather; Ella, a woman who watched her own family destroyed by these creatures; and a doctor-turned-bartender in Sam Rockwell, his wife one of the abducted.

They have handguns, shotguns, knives, and a whole lot of old-fashioned moxie—nothing more. ‘Alien’ may not even be a word in their vocabulary, the beings thought of as demons, evil incarnate. There is no easy way to defeat them; Lonergan’s weapon their only chance to instill fear. And these extraterrestrials aren’t the only enemy lying in wait along their path. Jake’s old crew, angry and under new leadership still travels through the open spaces, as does the last of the Indians spared from the white man’s fury. But as with all films containing a sure-fire route towards extinction, differences sometimes have to be put aside in order to live long enough for them to mean anything. Allegiances and friendships are formed and the absence of law is put aside for teamwork—humanity’s only chance letting loose with all they’ve got.

As a result, Cowboys & Aliens is foremost a western. The pace is deliberate and the speech and aesthetic straight out of the mid-1800s, just before the huge gold rush. There is a sticky, filthy sheen to the actors that’s inherent to the era, all performing appropriately with strong-jawed determination, smiles reserved for the young and the weak. If not for the soaring UFOs in the sky, you’d be quick to forget the second half of the title, but once you feast your eyes on the creatures inside—the mucousy, fearsome, grotesque beasts Universal pulled a Drew Struzan commissioned poster to keep under wraps—you too will feel the utter disbelief and hellish despair inhabitants of the 19th century couldn’t shake, being without the art and imagination of today. It isn’t the wild, exhilarating ride most might hope for by the trailer, but it is an intelligently well-crafted piece of original storytelling. It’s an epic David and Goliath tale if ever there was one, and a film worth steering clear of spoilers for full impact.

[1] Daniel Craig star as Jake Lonergan in Universal Pictures’ Cowboys and Aliens.
[2] (L to R) HARRISON FORD as the iron-fisted Colonel Dolarhyde and DANIEL CRAIG as a stranger with no memory of his past in an event film for summer 2011 that crosses the classic Western with the alien-invasion movie in a blazingly original way: “Cowboys & Aliens”. Photo Credit: Timothy White/Universal Studios and DreamWorks II Distribution Co. LLC Universal Studios and DreamWorks II Distribution Co. LLC
[3] Olivia Wilde as Ella and Daniel Craig as Jake Lonergan in Universal Pictures’ Cowboys and Aliens.

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