Saturday 10 November 2018

Movie Review: Cowboys And Aliens (2011)

A wild blend of western and science fiction, Cowboys And Aliens successfully pays homage to both genres with an engrossing story and plenty of spirited characters.

A man later identified to be outlaw Jake Lonergan (Daniel Craig) wakes up in the middle of the desert, wounded, with total memory loss and a strange metal gauntlet affixed to his wrist. He makes his way to the town of Absolution, where he meets the preacher Meacham (Clancy Brown), Doc (Sam Rockwell) and his wife Maria (Ana de la Reguera).

Jake also tangles with the no-good Percy Dolarhyde (Paul Dano), attracting the attention of Sheriff John Taggart (Keith Carradine) and Percy's father Colonel Woodrow Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford), a powerful cattleman who control the town. Also hanging around Absolution is the mysterious Ella (Olivia Wilde), who seems to take a special interest in Jake and his gauntlet.

Just as Taggart is bundling off Jake and Percy into a prisoner wagon, Absolution is attacked by alien spacecraft that bomb the town and snaggle victims, with Taggart, Maria and Percy among those abducted. Jake's gauntlet turns into an energy weapon and he is able to shoot down one of the jets. The alien pilot escapes on foot, prompting Jake, Woodrow, Doc and Ella to set off in pursuit. Meanwhile Jake starts to have flashbacks to his story, involving stolen gold, the love of his life Alice (Abigail Spencer), and being tortured by the aliens.

An adaptation of the graphic novel by Scott Mitchell Rosenberg directed by Jon Favreau, Cowboys And Aliens delivers exactly what the title promises: a raucous adventure featuring all the traditional elements of both old-school westerns and invaders-from-space sci-fi movies. Mushing the two genres was never going to be easy, and with the premise defined and limited by the title and an army of five screenwriters involved in conjuring up a script, the potential for a disaster was high.

But Favreau gets most things right. While the plot is creaky in some areas, particularly in confining the aliens to pure evil and barely explaining their motives, there is more than enough story depth to maintain interest. The film plays with some eternal western themes including greed, atonement, new starts and the individual search for salvation, and starting with the loner-on-a-mission ethos, builds up momentum towards a stronger-together human stand against the invaders.

The film is rich with characters, and a blend of stars and characters actors (many with western pedigrees) help bring the story to life. Daniel Craig effortlessly slips into the mysterious and dangerous quiet stranger persona, and holds the centre of the film together. Harrison Ford is surprisingly effective as the morally suspect cattle baron with a lot to learn. Olivia Wilde's Ella is initially out of place until she proves to exceptionally out of place, stitching the story together.

Favreau captures traditional western vistas in gorgeous colours, and the alien effects are generally good and seamlessly integrated, despite some choppiness creeping in during the more frantic action scenes. The tone is straight-faced and largely serious. For all the temptations to play Cowboys And Aliens as an irony-infused self-aware semi-comedy, the film offers only the slightest undercurrent of humour, mainly derived from the strength of the characters. The respectful attitude is on target: Cowboys And Aliens is a surprisingly straight shooter.

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