Mixing two genres is always a dangerous game. You run the risk of creating something that is unbalanced or just a flippant parody of both. ‘Cowboys & Aliens,’ despite its many flaws, is able to create a well-balanced homage to both the western and science fiction genres.
A mysterious man with no name (Daniel Craig) wakes up in the desert, bloodied and beaten and with complete amnesia. The only clues to what happened to him are a strangely cauterized cut on his stomach and a bizarre metal wristband that he can’t remove. Making his way into the defunct mining town of Absolution, he quickly learns that his name is Jake Lonergan, and he is a wanted criminal. His crime is the theft of gold from the town’s only patron, Colonel Woodrow Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford). What starts as your basic western premise of mysterious stranger getting arrested and possibly lynched suddenly explodes – quite literally – into an alien invasion. Alien ships descend upon the town, destroying nearly everything in their path and randomly snatching up people with their own lassos.
The main plot of the movie involves Lonergan attempting to get his memory back with the aid of the mysterious woman Ella (Olivia Wilde) and Dolarhyde leading a posse into the desert to find the aliens who took his son Percy (Paul Dano). As expected, Lonergan’s memory loss and the reasons for the aliens being there are not entirely separate things.
Make no mistake, this is not a deep movie. Its strengths are in its visuals and atmosphere, but it quickly falls apart if you try to think too much about what appears to be glaring plot holes. The aliens’ purpose for being out in the desert seems a bit pithy for all the effort that it would take to send ships millions of miles through space. Their reasons for abducting people also become somewhat contradictory if you stop to think about it. Even their physiology would make one wonder how something could evolve in such a manner.
Perhaps one isn’t supposed to think about these things and just enjoy the ride, because the ride itself is rather enjoyable. I feel that mainstream audiences may not get as much out of it, since there are many subtle in-jokes and nods to fans of classic westerns – particularly those done by John Ford and Sergio Leone – and classic sci-fi. Helmed by Jon Favreau, produced by Steven Spielberg and Ron Howard, and written by Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci, this is a movie made by genre fans for genre fans. It is high concept commercial art that looks very nice on the surface, but has little substance for how seriously it takes itself.
Its most impressive strength, however, is that is does manage to seamlessly blend two very disparate genres into a well-balanced whole. When we make the transitions between sweeping western and claustrophobic alien monster movie, it feels very natural. Even Harry Gregson-Williams’ score manages to strike a solid thematic balance between the western styles of Elmer Bernstein and Ennio Morricone and the darker sci-fi style of Jerry Goldsmith.
While Daniel Craig and Olivia Wilde deliver somewhat pre-packaged and uninspired performances, it’s Harrison Ford who clearly seems to be enjoying himself in his role. This is probably the most engaged I have seen him in a long time. While his latest turn as Indiana Jones could make one believe that he is perhaps past his prime for action movies, his portrayal of Colonel Dolarhyde shows that there is still some fire in the man.
Its biggest weakness is the fact that, while it may come off as a leave-your-brain-at-the-door popcorn flick, it takes itself seriously enough that you feel almost obligated to give it the benefit of deeper analysis. When one does that, however, the threadbare nature of the story, characters and set pieces become all too apparent. While the movie itself balances between western and sci-fi in a way that creates something rather unique, as a viewer, I found myself balancing between liking and disliking it to the point where I was left just giving an ambivalent shrug.