Pointing out that Cowboys & Aliens is not “really” a western may seem odd, and certainly unnecessary. It takes place in 1875, has people riding horses, and contains “Cowboys” in the title, but it also has spaceships, laser guns, and “Aliens” in the title. Thus, I’m not going to point it out, because it’s painfully obvious to everyone, even those who have only heard the name, I’m just going to mention that it is untrue. In fact, it is almost too western to perfect its purpose, but it’s close enough.
The film is built by splicing together characters, plot points, and action scenes from a variety of westerns, with all the key cliches and trappings, and heavy on things that involve Clint Eastwood and spurs. Largely, suck the rich rancher who thinks he owns the town from any number of films, and smash it together with High Plains Drifter, only switch it up so that we have to go attack the bad guys that have us outmatched, rather than waiting for them to return to town. Mix in key elements from the staple of films involving hostage rescue and/or attacks on hideouts, and you have things pretty well covered.
Now superimpose aliens into the thing as the bad guys, and the film isn’t a western? I beg to differ.
Not only is it a western, straight from the glory days and thrown beyond the future, it starts out as one of the best you’ve run across in quite some time. Among the many references to late-era efforts is the fact that it kicks off with a man with no name, except this one actually says, “I don’t know my name.”
A man (Daniel Craig) wakes in the middle of the desert, and he clearly has no idea how he got there. He has no shoes, little idea where he is, and a strange, metal bracelet on. Following western standard form, delivered unto him are the means to make his way to the nearest town. The town, charmingly, is known as Absolution, and it’s standard one-horse fare, complete with the aforementioned rich rancher (Harrison Ford), and a timid saloon-owner (Sam Rockwell) hoping against hope to make it in a town with less than its fair share of fair shares.
As our unnamed focus strolls into town, mainly hoping to clean the strange wound in his side, he is met by the, not unfamiliar to westerns, preacher who knows how to handle a gun (Clancy Brown, who is great, underutilized, and should bloody well get to the end of more films). Introductions quickly out of the way, our hero is then introduced to the son of the wealthy rancher, Percy (Paul Dano), mainly by way of the fact that he is shooting up the town, throwing his father’s weight around, and generally being a prick.
Through a clever twist of irony, Percy’s harassing antics have all the bite of the wet puppy he is, but while meaning to shoot wild in order to scare our hero, he pops one into a Deputy, and now the Sheriff (Keith Carradine) has no choice but to arrest him. All concerned know full well the trouble that’s going to bring down when Papa Dolarhyde, the rich rancher, finds out, but there’s isn’t any way around it now. On locking Percy up, the Sheriff catches a glimpse of a wanted poster, and suddenly our unknown stranger has a name, Jake Lonergan. It’s a name spat out from the very bowels of western hell itself. Many a vicious hombre back in the day would have given anything for the curious fortune to have been named Jake Lonergan.
It’s a banner day for our good Sheriff, and now he has to bring in Lonergan as well. A nice show almost gets Lonergan, who doesn’t want any trouble, out of town, but he forgot the old western rule of never leaving the girl standing behind you. Well, as soon as the Sheriff locks Percy and Lonergan together in order to take them to the federal authorities, it’s time for Dolarhyde Sr. to show up with his crew, and now we’re in for a mess. The Sheriff isn’t about to back down, Dolarhyde has a lot of muscle behind him, and it turns out that he wants Lonergan as well, what with some previous gold-stealing activities to discuss.
Such is the way of westerns, bullies, men left with no choice, and fickle bitch fate.
Then the aliens show up.
Lights appear in the sky, Lonergan’s bracelet doohickey starts beeping, and all hell breaks lose. The aliens abduct several members of the town, including Percy and the barkeep’s wife, and trivial grievances are put aside, as everyone must now join together if there’s going to be any hope of getting them back.
As that’s only the first few minutes of the film, there’s clearly a lot more that happens, but it doesn’t really matter, and you already know what it is anyway. There is much about googly-eyed aliens, their freakish anatomy, and the fact that even though they can travel through space, they don’t seem to display much intelligence, but none of it matters. It’s slick, fun, and surprisingly well put together, but all that matters is the mashing together of countless western snippets into something that’s just crazy enough to work.
Daniel Craig slips into the role convincingly, not only as Old West varmint, but Old West varmint without his memory. Harrison Ford makes one wish he had been older sooner (much like L.Q. Jones in The Jack Bull), so that he could have been the go to bastard rancher back when it would have counted, and every other film had one.
Cowboys & Aliens is the sort of film that, if they know what they’re doing, makes film critics tread lightly. We’re in a very specific genre here, and I don’t mean sci-fi vs. western. When all is said and done, it’s completely ridiculous, but this is a film that is checking its counterargument at the door with its title, and not only embraces the fact, but dares to ask if that can work anyway.
The western is dead they say, and True Grit was the remake that proves the rule, but what if we could squeeze in everything that made westerns what they were, and screw with it until people would show up again? Westerns, let’s face it, were never really the next greatest films, but they had cool characters (not necessarily the best characters), plotlines that filled the needs of bravado, shootouts, and the compelling return to a time when you could by God give someone a punch in the snoot when they needed it.
Layered within the action were standard elements of manhood. Doing the right thing, even if it meant you were sure to end up dead. Telling the bully off even as he’s kicking you in the teeth. Working out the details of the legal defense to murder that was, “he needed killin’.” And, naturally, the ogling of women who stand out from all others because they are strong, but need protection, and are demure, but saucy.
Cowboys & Aliens is absolutely goofy, despite great action, acting, and a serious helping of fun. My general recommendation is that it probably isn’t for you, and you won’t like it, and I base that on the fact that you know the title and still look for advice from a review. But, it was awesome.