Putting Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford in Stetsons is clearly an excellent idea. Both men have faces made for Westerns, rugged and rough-hewn. There is a sense of stoic reserve and working-class grit about them; neither is the sort of man one can only imagine being an actor, or leading a life of privilege.
Director Jon Favreau (Iron Man) and his art team and costumers surround Craig and Ford with an appropriately gritty Western milieu that’s all dusty, dusky earthtones, unfinished wood and rocky, mountainous desert terrain. It’s all serviceable but generic — a trait that regrettably applies to the characters and conflicts, except of course the conflict with the aliens.
The alien thing is a new wrinkle in a Western, obviously. I like Peter Debruge’s observation (Variety) that it was science fiction that killed the Western in the first place (a cultural shift recalled in the first two Toy Story movies), so Cowboys & Aliens could be seen as a sort of grudge match.
It’s a B-list grudge match at best, though. A-list cast, of course, and A-list special effects, and the makings of a good Western/sci-fi mashup are here. Ultimately, though, what’s interesting and fresh about Cowboys & Aliens isn’t just all in the title — it’s all in the ampersand. Neither the cowboys nor the aliens bring much interest in themselves, and the mashup serves to illustrate that two half-baked worlds don’t add up to a satisfying cinematic whole.
Daniel Craig plays a mystery man who wakes up in the New Mexico desert with no memory of who he is, how he got there or why he has a bloody wound in his side and a heavy, strange-looking metallic clamp on his wrist. (Another amnesiac protagonist? Really?) Before he can climb to his feet, four horsemen come across him, size up his condition, and, supposing that he may be wanted, plan to take him captive for a possible bounty. Craig’s lightning-like response would do Bond credit, and in a few heartbeats all four men are dead.
It’s an, ah, alienating opening set piece, superficially echoing the first scene in Lawrence Kasdan’s hugely enjoyable Western homage Silverado, in which Scott Glenn is suddenly beset by four attackers and kills them all. The crucial difference is that Glenn’s attackers (whom we never see, since the scene is shot from inside a shack where Glenn is holed up, with the attackers on the outside) are specifically gunning for him and mean to kill him if they can, whereas Craig’s adversaries are merely opportunists hopeful of a bounty.
Thus, Silverado’s opening invites us to sympathize with Glenn, whereas Cowboys & Aliens’ opening establishes Craig, or Jake Lonergan as we will come to know him, as a stone cold killer. A dog arriving with the four horsemen falls into step behind Lonergan without missing a beat, clearly recognizing his alpha status. Olivia Wilde (in a role with a spoilery echo of her part in Tron: Legacy) behaves similarly, although not necessarily for the same reason. Wilde follows Lonergan through the film for some reason wearing something that looks vaguely like a garment that a woman of her day would put on before putting on a dress over it; in fact, Lonergan initially takes her for a whore.
Ford, in the stock role of a ruthless cattle baron named Dolarhyde, takes on one of the few remotely interesting challenges he’s had in nearly two decades (Morning Glory was another). He has a few intriguing moments that suggest that he might have done the role some credit, had there really been a role, or rather a character.
But the screenplay lets him down, first painting Dolarhyde as a brutal tyrant who tortures underlings and is willing to gun down honest men to protect his worthless son (Paul Dano), then attempting to redeem him with a heartfelt speech from Dolarhyde’s right-hand man (Adam Beach) and Ford’s wry grin. The result, instead of a complex, contradictory character like John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards in The Searchers, is a character who starts out as a vicious bully before inexplicably morphing into Harrison Ford. In a movie with so much sound and fury, Ford’s best bits are quiet character moments, like a scene in which Dolarhyde notices a young boy’s fascination with his knife. (Too bad the movie ruins this moment by revisiting the knife and adding a pro-euthanasia speech, even if it also cross-examines the speech.)
The aliens are basically a disappointment. In a goofy genre twist on alien abductions, small one-pilot flying saucers zip overhead abducting humans — not sucking them up in tractor beams, but roping them like cattle. When we finally meet the beasties, though, they’re low-rent CGI cousins to every alien big bad from Super 8 to District 9. Other than being humanoid, but bigger, tougher, faster and uglier than humans, there’s not much to report. Drew McWeeney (HitFlix) aptly notes that the aliens are stated to have poor vision in bright light, yet in the big climactic battle, uniting a disparate band of humans including cowboys, Indians and cavalry against the aliens, the full-on sun doesn’t seem to offer the humans an advantage. Also, the aliens’ seeming imperviousness to our best weaponry at times inexplicably lapses, creating a wobbly Ewok-battle dynamic in which the outcome of any given confrontation makes sense only with respect to the filmmakers’ whim rather than any onscreen logic.
The aliens’ stated motivations are lame. Given the Western milieu, I could almost accept the conceit that they’ve come for our gold, which we’re told is as rare and valuable to them as to us (though surely an interstellar operation of this magnitude costs far more than all the gold in the West?). But I won’t give the movie the extensive exercise in terrorizing, abducting and experimenting on humans merely to “discover our weaknesses” — and not merely because it doesn’t make sense. The experimentation scenes, as well as some of the battle sequences, are nastier and more disturbing than a feather-light movie like this has a right to be. (The repeated image of a woman on her back being jerked slightly back and forth suggests a rape subtext.)
On the other hand, a strand of spiritual references and themes is among the movie’s most intriguing moves. Clancy Brown plays a sympathetic frontier preacher named Meacham who patches up Lonergan’s injury, and whose scenes are peppered with God-talk and crosses. His theology isn’t always bang-on, but it’s well-intentioned and remarkably positively portrayed. Too bad his part isn’t bigger.
The preacher isn’t present when a slain character is buried and Sam Rockwell’s timorous saloonkeeper, Doc, scruples that they ought to “say some words.” Dolarhyde growls that it’s enough that they buried him, but Doc, in a rare show of gumption, objects that it isn’t, and stumbles through an agnostic but sincere prayer for the dead man’s soul. I like this acknowledgment that death calls for some sort of ritual and religious response. At the very end a character assures another that someone he cares about is “in a better place,” and a church glimpsed over the second character’s shoulder seems to endorse this sentiment. I wish this kind of thing were in more movies these days.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.