Destiny, or forgiveness: The cool stranger doesn’t know who he is or what he has done. He rides into the nearby town of Absolution, gets stitched up by a gun-toting preacher named Meacham (Clancy Brown) and impresses the locals when he takes care of Percy (Paul Dano), the bullying ne’er-do-well son of powerful cattleman Woodrow Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford). A mysterious woman named Ella (Olivia Wilde, looking none too 1870s-ish) is more than a little interested in the stranger, who turns out to be a wanted outlaw named Jake Lonergan. The little town also has a mild-mannered saloonkeeper/doctor known as Doc (Sam Rockwell), a sheriff (Keith Carradine) with a cute orphaned grandson (Noah Ringer), a gang of outlaws with bad dental hygiene and Nat Colorado (Adam Beach), an orphaned American Indian who works for (and greatly admires) Dolarhyde, and serves as a useful liaison with the local Apache tribe.
Cowboys and Indians, you say? A classic Western with all the elements of a stirring story of heroism, redemption, father/son reconciliation, boys becoming men and enemies joining together to fight a common foe? You betcha – plus, vicious aliens from outer space! Cowboys & Aliens is a high-concept mash-up of bug-eyed-monster science fiction and the Western, which sounds like a hoot. It’s a hoot and a holler, although (or because) director Jon Favreau (Iron Man) plays it completely straight.
The movie, scripted by a posse-sized team of writers, hauls out all the touchstones of the two genres, letting familiar tropes serve as inside jokes for audiences familiar with Western and sci-fi movies. By being both a sentimental-yet-pokerfaced Western and a scary alien-abduction movie, Cowboys & Aliens is partly about the unlikely collision of these two genres – which, as it turns out, are not so different. Movies like Alien (to which Cowboys & Aliens tips its ten-gallon hat) are, after all, space Westerns in which the deer and the antelope play in the starry skies (and try to eat you with their acid-dripping jaws) and the frontier explorers shoot it out in the dark canyons of other worlds. The original Star Trek was conceived by Gene Roddenberry as “Wagon Train to the stars.” Roddenberry recognized the exploratory impulse and frontier spirit common to sci-fi and the Western.
The new twist in Cowboys & Aliens is that the movie brings the scary monsters to the American frontier, where they haven’t been seen before. Like everyone else, the bug-eyed, four-armed monsters are looking for gold. They abduct humans to “study them,” or so we’re told. The aliens themselves don’t speak, and seem neither smart nor inquisitive enough for scientific study – although they did bring a big ol’ spaceship here, and they have super-duper scout planes that grab the terrified citizenry with grappling hooks. This is not a close encounter that anyone could look forward to, and the subsequent probing tends to be fatal.
But it turns out that that wrist cuff of Lonergan’s is a useful ray-gun for zapping mean monsters, which is good, because guns and arrows are pretty much useless against them. The good guys (a motley crew of bandits, cowboys, townsfolk, kids and Apaches) are outnumbered too; but they’ve got pluck, and they mean to rescue their kidnapped loved ones from the aliens, guns a-blazing.
Harrison Ford was made for this kind of stuff, having played the gruff adventurer and gruff space cowboy many times over. If they still made a lot of Westerns, he could be a senior statesman of the genre. Daniel Craig is a nice surprise as the quiet stranger. With his chiseled physique, he’s way more buff than any hero from the heyday of cowboy movies; but his craggy face and piercing blue eyes work under that big hat, and with his unflappable, almost robotic demeanor, he’s the self-contained embodiment of the movie’s genre-crashing: an otherworldly cowboy with a ray-gun.
Cowboys & Aliens is what would be called an old-fashioned movie, if it weren’t two old-fashioned movies fashioned together. Once the concept – menacing space aliens attack the American frontier – is established, the movie proceeds as a fairly straightforward Western that occasionally collides with a fairly straightforward alien-invasion movie. Favreau and cinematographer Matthew Libatique get the look and feel of both genres right, from the shabby town of Absolution (looking like a classic Hollywood backlot Western town, with one street) to the dark, cavelike interiors of the alien spaceship, full of icky goo and nasty aliens. Like rice and beans, salt and pepper, the Lone Ranger and Tonto, Cowboys & Aliens go well together – even if they mix like oil and water.
Syd’s pick: Check out 2005 sci-fi Western Serenity
Based on the late, great TV series Firefly, Serenity (2005) is really and truly an oater in outer space, set five centuries in the future, when a US/China Alliance has taken over the universe, terraforming and colonizing planets all over the galaxy. The result is a whole bunch of raggedy frontier towns that make Deadwood look like Paris. The lingua franca is a down-homey-yet-formal, East-meets-Old-West patois peppered with G-rated neologisms for PG-rated words. The most colorful cussing is done in Chinese. Writer/director Joss Whedon’s witty, bracing dialogue keeps the movie as verbally packed as it is action-packed.
A war for independence has spat out a few survivors from the losing side, among them captain Mal Reynolds (Nathan Fillion), who carries a six-shooter, his second-in-command Zoe (Gina Torres) and assorted other scruffy, rowdy outlaws who make up the crew of the spaceship Serenity, a comically inaptly named transport ship that manages to fly (when it manages to fly) mostly under the radar, picking up odd and generally illegal jobs and passengers.
Shades of grey abound amidst the dusty browns and woolly wildness of the scraggly backwater planets where the Serenity outlaws make their hideouts. The characters tend to be crusty and self-serving on the outside, but gooey moral absolutists on the inside: They do the right thing even when they don’t want to. Well, they usually do; and, to their credit, they often regret it when they don’t.
@ Syd M