Cowboys and Aliens

When I first heard that there was going to be a movie called ‘Cowboys and Aliens’, I was hooked. How could a movie with a name like that fail to be awesome? I was not deterred by the memory of ‘Snakes on a Plane’, because while the comedic value of the title was obvious, the concept hardly seemed enough to hang a whole movie on; therefore, it wasn’t a surprise when the movie failed to live up to all the hype (not that I saw it–I hate snakes–but that is what I heard). But ‘Cowboys and Aliens’? It would have cowboys, *and* aliens! What’s not to like? Then, I found out the three leads would be Daniel Craig, Harrison Ford and Olivia Wilde, and Daniel Craig would take off his shirt AND wear chaps, and I was all there. And THEN, I heard the Jon Favreau interview on NPR, where he talked about making the film a Western all the way through, rather than switching from a Western to a scifi action flick when they get to the aliens, and even though I couldn’t be any more there, I kind of was.

I was a bit worried about the movie when we showed up on opening night to find one of the small theaters in our local cinema not quite full, but we did go to the later show. I see that the film did tie with the ‘Smurfs’ for Number 1, though that doesn’t actually make me feel much better–it couldn’t do any better than the ‘Smurfs’? Seriously? But, I really did enjoy it nonetheless.

First of all, all three leads are fantastic actors. Craig has an amazing ability to convey a range of emotions with very few words and not even that many changes in facial expression. Ford was fantastic, seemingly effortlessly projecting the kind of charisma and sheer force of personality that reminds you that he is really is a star. As a relative newcomer to the kind of leading roles Craig and Ford have been doing for a while, Wilde was surprisingly adept at claiming her share of the attention onscreen, especially given how tragically underwritten her character was. Not that she wasn’t important–she was a pivotal character, we just don’t get to know enough about her. There were plenty of hints that she was fascinating, but frustratingly few details.

The movie works as a western all the way through. Despite the presence of aliens, the human characters remain believable. They aren’t comfortable with the scientific principles behind the alien technology; they don’t even really try to understand them. They correctly deduce that they wouldn’t understand them anyway and move on to more practical matters, like how to stop them from taking over our planet, and retrieving their kidnapped loved ones. There is the outlaw saved by the love of a woman (Craig), the arrogant landowner who thinks he owns the whole town (Ford), the Indian he has raised since he found him as an orphan, but never truly accepted as part of the family, a doctor/saloon owner who picks up a gun for the first time, practicing his shooting as they ride out, a country preacher, a young boy tagging along learning what it means to be a man, even a faithful dog. There is a reference to the standard jumping from a horse to a stagecoach seen, and a solitary cowboy riding out of town at the end. They encounter Native Americans, although their differences seem a bit less obvious when they have a common enemy.

Of course, the movie was not perfect. I certainly would like to see the women do more. Wilde’s character was key, but Ana de la Reguera seemed quite underused as the doctor’s wife. The aliens were totally terrifying, which is good and bad. It is good to see aliens that look truly alien, especially in the context of this movie, where part of the reason that the primitive humans had any chance at all was that the aliens did not expect to have to defend themselves because they were so far above the humans. But they were so scary it was almost hard to believe that the humans would be able to defend themselves at all. Of course, the concept of aliens alone would be so frightening and unexpected that perhaps they would just move past terrified fairly quickly. The ending was a bit uneven as well, with the aliens conveniently absent from the heart of their ship so that Craig and Wilde could walk up, have a brief exchange, and get Wilde to where she wants to be with hardly an alien in sight, despite the fact that they were swarming outside on the decoy cowboys and Indians, and they had come down in force when the humans were destroying their gold mine.

The gold mine was a bit of a problem on it’s own. Wilde’s Ella explains that gold is just as rare for the aliens as it is for us when the cowboys and Indians express shock at the idea that the aliens are going to all this trouble for the same thing that causes trouble amongst us humans, but that is all the explanation she gives, and everyone just accepts it. There are a lot of times in the movie where certain characters or plot points seem to function as shorthand for a bigger story. The faithful dog that barks when aliens are near, the reference to sending the criminals off to Santa Fe, the suggestion that the weapon Craig uses against the aliens functions by mind control–all of these are referred to glancingly, suggesting a lot more to western or scifi fans, but throwing away that meaning for more casual fans.

When it comes down to it, that is what I found most disappointing about this film–I loved it, but it is not the kind of universally appealing movie I was hoping for. This is a niche film. There is not anything wrong with niche films, but I was kind of hoping for the kind of big crossover movie that would appeal to many people, which was probably an unrealistic expectation anyway. In the end, this was a very fun movie with great characters, great actors, and it was an interesting take on both the scifi and western genres. I will be going again, as my daughter was very disappointed when she found that I went without her while she was at her dad’s this weekend, and I am looking forward to seeing it again. But then again, Daniel Craig takes off his shirt and wears chaps and walks around looking all manly yet graceful, so the movie could be a lot worse and still be worth my time. Fortunately, there is a lot more to enjoy. If this sounds good to you, then I highly recommend it. If it doesn’t sound like a good movie to you, you could probably skip it with no regrets, though.