Horror. Worldview. Faith.

Cowboys & Aliens – Review

Cowboys & Aliens – Review

Aug 4, 2011

reviewed by Skot
directed by Jon Favreau, 2011

Several years ago, I started reading a novel about an extraterrestrial craft that crashed in Portugal in the Middle Ages.  The townspeople had no frame of reference to interpret their visitors as beings from another planet.  The benighted humans thought the advanced technologies of the spacemen must either be the results of sorcery or divine mediation.  For one reason or another, I never had the chance to finish that book before I had to return it to the library.  I can no longer remember what it was called or who wrote it and haven’t been able to track it down to complete it.

I’m not sure if the book was any good or not, but the premise was very sticky.  The concept of space aliens visiting earth in a time other than the modern one has a lot of untapped potential.  I’m sure there were some episodes of Twilight Zone or Star Trek that explored this thought.  It’s an underlying concept for Battlestar Gallactica. And who hasn’t heard about the theories of Erich von Daniken in Chariots of the Gods?  But I can’t recall a major motion picture that has dwelt on it.

How would people from times past react to advanced technology?  Though realism is not the first word that comes to mind with this film, it does strike me as genuine that the townspeople initially plug the aliens into their worldview.  They used the only vocabulary they had, wondering if their extraordinary assailants were demons.

Cowboys and Aliens stars Daniel Craig, Harrison Ford, Olivia Wilde and Keith Carradine.  You can see that the cast is something special.  It even has Sam Rockwell in an all too bland supporting role.  If they could have thrown in Samuel L. Jackson or Robert Downey Jr., it would have been perfect!

Daniel Craig plays Jake Lonergan (“Loner” – gan) who wakes up at the beginning of the movie lying in the desert, shoeless, wounded, with a strange metal contraption on his wrist, and no memory.  He quickly establishes himself as a man not to be messed with.  Having made his way to town, he finds himself at odds both with the sheriff, played by Keith Carradine and the big-shot rancher tycoon played by Harrison Ford.  This is the best role I’ve seen Ford play in years.

When the town is attacked by flying machines which rope random residents and rustle them away, the guys in the black hats and the guys in the white hats determine to work together, form a posse, and to try to rescue their kinfolk.  Other directors might have utilized energy beams to zap their captives up, but the use of the lasso was a nice western touch.

The men are helped by the always strikingly beautiful Olivia Wilde in the role of Ella Swenson.  As a side note, Olivia Wilde may be the new go-to action movie chic.  Consider Tron and now this.  She doesn’t yet have the fighting cred of Angelina Jolie (Tomb Raider, Mr. and Mrs. Smith, Salt).  But she’s a step above the token eye-candy girlfriend who is otherwise pointless to the plot (ie. Megan Fox in Transformers).  Jennifer Garner hasn’t done action in years, so maybe Wilde is the up-and-comer.  Have you started taking Karate lessons yet Liv?

Craig and Ford are the narrative focal points, and Wilde to a lesser extent.  All three of them are more than they first appear.  Wilde is in a category all her own, about which I’ll say no more.  Neither of the fellas is exactly admirable.  The preacher could have been talking about either one when he uttered this astute observation: “I’ve seen good men do bad things and bad men do good things.”  Are our heroes bad or good?  Both of them experience a change by the end of the picture.  Their sufferings and their losses are redemptive.

Most of the jabbering in the press is about the genre-bending mashup of the western and science fiction.  There’s at least one other genre that should get factored into the equation: horror.  If you think a move called Cowboys and Aliens sounds like kid’s stuff, be careful.  This is not a movie for little children.  The monsters are genuinely frightening at times and truly revolting all the time.  There are several jump scares and there are scenes of torture and grisly violence.  Alien abductions constitute a spooky sub-genre of horror and this movie goes there (cf. Fire in the Sky (1993) and The Fourth Kind (2009) et al.).

One moment struck me as particularly poignant.  When Craig finds the pile of gold watches and other personal items of abductees, it resembled a scene from the Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C.  The nazis collected the valuables of the concentration camp prisoners into piles.  This hints at the possibility of genocide or human extinction.  It also suggests that otherworldly monsters are not the only ones we need to worry about.  I realize I’m reading between the lines, but I don’t think I’m pressing the imagery too far.

In earlier decades, filmmakers faced what they called the “monster problem.”  That is to say, you had to have a creature that looked real enough to produce the intended effect.  You didn’t want to get everyone all geared up to see a nasty beastie, only to reveal a man in a rubber suit.  Having people laugh at your monster is not desirable.  Personally, I prefer old-school physical special effects whenever possible, but there are limits to what you can do without CGI.  C&A utilized both to the optimum effect.

There were many moments that called to mind sci-fi films that preceded it.  The abductees returning, for instance, reminded me of a similar moment in Close Encounters of the 3rd Kind.  A hat tip to Steven Spielberg, one of the several top shelf executive produces of C&A?

Cowboys and Aliens is a fun adventure.  So many things about it make it cooler than other blockbusters this summer, not the least of which is the cast.  Jon Favreau, the director, is not known for helming subtle thinky pictures, but he does know how to punch you the face with a good time.

What we have here is primarily a blistering fun time, not a message movie.  But if you will indulge this reviewer, one moral of this story seems to be that people can change.  It might just be that we need an impending global catastrophe to get us to wake up.  When the threat is great enough, even cowboys and indians will put aside their differences and work together.  Don’t waste your days on things that don’t matter.  Chasing gold is futile.  Family counts.  Community counts.  Even religious faith is given a nod.  And learn to give your brother a chance.  The town is named Absolution after all.

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