Cowboys & Aliens the movie is as much a western as it is a first contact alien invasion story. Its dedication to creating both a realistic historical setting and an advanced alien technologies and species are its strengths; but to those who dislike one genre or the other, it could be the film’s greatest weakness.
It is widely unpublicized that this film was based on the Platinum Studios comic book series Cowboys & Aliens published in 2006. Knowing that the film was due later in the year, I bought the trade collection of the comic book this past spring. The story is co-written by Andrew Foley and Fred Van Lente, with the majority of the artwork by Luciano Lima. The writing style is dialogue driven and lacks any real depth or nuance of character. The artwork is slightly cartoony, but clear, if slightly unimaginative. If I had read this not knowing it was going to be made into a film, I wouldn’t have thought it would make a very good one. Fortunately, the film Cowboys & Aliens uses the title and the basic premise, but little else. I can see why Hollywood would be interested in the idea of extraterrestrials in the old west, but why they would buy this property instead of just creating their own original film is beyond me.
The film opens with Jake Lonergan waking up in the middle of nowhere, with no memory of who he is or how he got there. He makes his way to the town Absolution, where the son of a wealthy cattle baron is causing trouble and is arrested along with Jake. Woodrow Dolarhyde, the owner of the cattle ranch and the former mining town’s only source of income, is attempting to free his son from captivity, when the town is attacked by several alien spaceships. Jake escapes and fires a weapon of alien origin that is attached to his arm destroying one of the ships. The rest of the ships leave, but take many of the townspeople hostage; including Dolarhyde’s son. Jake, who begins to regain some of his memory, joins a group of the townspeople in forming a pose to track down the aliens and find out where they have taken their human captives. Along the way, they encounter outlaws and Native Americans, some of whom hinder them and some who end up helping them in their mission to rescue the humans captured by the aliens.
Combining two dissimilar genres like the western and science fiction is a risky and demanding venture. Westerns are generally character driven dramas that use the historical setting to explore the human condition and perhaps as an allegory to dramatize modern world problems in a simpler time. Science fiction, on the other hand, is used primarily to extrapolate on ideas or settings and how they are affected by futuristic technologies or advanced ideologies. By combining the two, it can either weaken or strengthen them both. Cowboys & Aliens uses the idea of alien beings that have a superior technology and are forced to use inferior human labor to repair their spaceship, which untimely leads to their destruction. Stories about primitive societies overcoming more advanced ones are fairly common in fiction. What makes Cowboys & Aliens good science fiction is that it creates a believable alien species and technology, while maintaining a solid foundation in the reality of the setting – in this case the 1800’s American west.
The characters are what make the implausible situation of aliens interacting with cowboys believable. Harrison Ford takes the character of Woodrow Dolarhyde and imbues him with multiple layers of personality. At the outset of Cowboys &amp; Aliens, Ford plays Woodrow as a fiercely determined father, who is unlikeable because of his superior bearing and demanding nature. As the film develops, Ford allows more subtle aspects of his character to come out and as a result our opinion of the character becomes slightly different. The veteran actor takes a character that could have been two-dimensional and makes him into a truly multifaceted personality. This is important, because the main character, as played by Daniel Craig, starts off the film as a man with no memory of his past or persona. It doesn’t allow Craig much in the way of creating empathy for his character and when we do find out more about him later in the film, much of his character’s personality is not particularly likeable. The supporting cast are all fine actors, but not as much is required of them. The only other pivotal character to the story is Ella Swenson, who is one of the few townspeople that does not appear to be afraid of Woodrow Dolarhyde or his son. Olivia Wilde is a fine actress, but it is her nearly too perfect facial features that help create Ella’s unique extra dimensional persona.
I really liked the fact that director John Favreau takes the time to establish both the setting and character in the first thirty minutes of Cowboys & Aliens, before introducing the aliens into the story. Because we really believe in the world that Favreau has created, we are better able to adapt to the intrusion of the aliens to the story. Of course, because of the film’s title, we are expecting the aliens – in fact, I’m sure the sci-fi fans were waiting somewhat impatiently for their appearance. Still, I think the film succeeds because of the gradual buildup to the science fictional element. When the final act of the film arrives, Cowboys &amp; Aliens does not disappoint. The smaller ships that we see at the beginning of the film are just a hint of the grander alien technology that we see at the end of the film. The action is packed with many thrills during the attack of the townspeople and Native Americans when they join together in attacking the alien ship to rescue their captured friends and family. It is both an emotionally and logically satisfying conclusion to all the various plot threads that are woven together in Cowboys & Aliens.
If you are a fan of either the western or science fiction genres, I think you can find plenty to enjoy with this film. Don’t let the ingenuous title dissuade you: Cowboys & Aliens is a realistic action drama that will satisfy fans of any genre!