Cowboys and Aliens could have been made in the 1950s, albeit with shonkier sets. The twin genres of the Western and Sci-Fi were, in many ways, the flip side of a coin. As the popularity of the Western came into decline with the rise of the nuclear age and the space race, it was replaced with fantastic stories from beyond and the threat of nuclear-fueled monsters from the deep. When it too was superseded by a race known as the ‘blockbuster’, interesting takes on science fiction became something of a rarity. However, a generation of filmmakers have been rediscovering these great tent-poles of American cinema. Indeed, Cowboys and Aliens could be a theme for the last couple of years, with a rise of the western genre (True Grit, Meek’s Cutoff) and alien encounters (Battle: Los Angeles, Monsters, Green Lantern) alike. With director Jon Favreau’s (Iron Man) latest film, all three themes are mashed-up into a spectacular whole.
A stranger (Daniel Craig, Defiance) awakes in the desert with a mysterious wound and an even more mysterious bracelet clasped to his wrist. With no memories of where he came from, he wanders into the town of Absolution, where he soon runs afoul of Percy Dolarhyde (Paul Dano, Meek’s Cutoff), the reckless son of the ruthless cattle tycoon Woodrow Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford, Morning Glory). When the stranger is arrested, accused of being the outlaw Jake Lonergan, he is dogged by the beautiful Ella Swenson (Olivia Wilde, TRON: Legacy), who is intrigued by the past he can’t remember. When technologically advanced aliens attack the town, kidnap loved ones and blowing things up, Lonergan, Dolarhyde and Swenson must team up to battle the aliens.
Delivering exactly what it promises on the box, Cowboys and Aliens may be more about the former than the latter, and keep the pacing of a Western, but it is hell of a lot of fun. Based on the comic book of the same name by Scott Mitchell Rosenberg, the list of five screenwriters should send up warning signs of a schizophrenic genre-bending mashup. Yet visions of another Wild Wild West are soon abated by the competent storytelling and very grounded world that Favreau has crafted out of the graphic material. From the lush photography by Matthew Libatique (Black Swan, Iron Man) to the Scott Chambliss (Star Trek) production design, the key to Cowboys and Aliens‘ success is the Western that sits at the core of the science fiction. Taking an unexpectedly straightforward approach to an otherwise unusual pairing, the film rides at a steady pace that will no doubt frustrate some, but makes the payoff all the sweeter as a result. This is not a crazy mashup after all, but a Western that just happens to have aliens in it.
Just as much as cowboys and aliens have been the stars of Hollywood for the better part of the last century of cinema, James Bond and Indiana Jones have become the cowboys of the modern age. Scoring both of them for this fantastic outing is a major coup, not least of which is due to Harrison Ford’s status as the original space cowboy who shot first, as Han Solo. While Craig largely bores holes into the camera with his piercing blue eyes, and Ford’s angry old man schtick has become routine, there is a certain gravitas that comes with their presence. The stunningly beautiful Olivia Wilde sheds her TRON spandex for gingham and a gun belt, and becomes more than simply window dressing in a genre that is typically dominated by men. The supporting cast, including Western familiar Paul Dano (There Will Be Blood, Meek’s Cutoff), a timid Sam Rockwell (Conviction) and cult hero Clancy Brown (Green Lantern) are all excellent, and all serve their part in weaving together this rich tapestry of a Western.
When the aliens do make their appearance, there is genuine shock and awe to be had, and that remains true of every appearance of the otherwordly creatures. Keeping them scarce enough to scare, and crafted with some excellent special effects from the legendary ILM, Cowboys and Aliens hits all the right notes to keep this fun and breezy. Coupled with a pitch-perfect score from Harry Gregson-Williams (Unstoppable, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time), twanging its way across the horizon, Cowboys and Aliens is the kind of old-fashioned adventure that is pure joyful escapism.
Cowboys and Aliens is released on 18 August 2011 in Australia from Paramount.