This is a review about Dreamworks' Cowboys and Aliens.
You may ask "why write a review that has not only opened weeks ago but has done so badly at the box office that it's on its way out?" Call it an apologetic caveat and a lesson in the dangers of dismissing a concept because of its unfamiliarity.
Earlier in the week I wrote a blog post regarding reboots and remakes and why the till of previously made films get dipped into time and again. When that happens the general outcry is Hollywood does not produce something original. Yet it does and many, unfortunately myself included, passed a quasi-original offering aside...to my regret. Because Cowboys and Aliens, a film based on the comic book by Scott Mitchell Rosenberg, was...is...one of the best films to come out this summer.
It may have been off putting that, from a marketing perspective, that it this cross-genre offering was difficult to pigeon-hole. Was it a western? A sci-fi film? A tongue in cheek comedy? A serious film? (The film was described by the producers as "A western...and then aliens show up"). Star Trek was known as "Wagon Train to the stars", but this film actually makes good on that description. It is all that, ladies and gentlemen, and more because it shows that considerations of genre are secondary to the power of good storytelling.
The film stars Daniel Craig (Quantum of Solace, the forthcoming The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo) as an amnesiac cowboy in the mold of Steve McQueen and Yul Brynner, who wakes up with no knowledge of who he is or what the mysterious metal bracelet attached to his left wrist has come from. Soon he runs afoul of the law and the local powerful cattle baron Woodrow Dolarhyde (a very complex and powerful Harrison Ford) and then...aliens show up. In any other film, the complete transition from one genre to another would seem discordantly jarring. Yet, under the tight direction of Jon Favreau (Iron Man and Iron Man 2), with an intelligent script by Star Trek (2009) screenwriters Roberto Orzi and Alex Kurtzman, among others, the transition flows organically. This transition is helped along by the scoring abilities of Harry Gregson-Williams, who manages to meld the usual lyrical genre tropes of both sci-fi and the western and create an energetic confluence of styles into one cohesive and satisfying whole.
The characters are many, each with their own subplots and conflicts. All too often in many other films the juggling of that many plots either end unsatisfactorily or are left dangling without resolution. One of the hallmarks of C&A is that these sub-plots and leitmotifs come at you out of nowhere yet make complete sense, due to both the power of the scripting and perhaps more importantly the performances.
The main irony is how easily British born Craig typifies the classic American western (anti) hero. He was reportedly chosen for this role due to his strong resemblance to the late Steven McQueen, yet the resemblance is secondary to the persona he portrays. For the two hours of this film, he makes you completely forget that he is the current holder of MI6's license to kill. He evinces the requisite stoicism inherent in such a character, but with enough vulnerability to make him relatable and even likable in his more unlikable moments.
Harrison Ford, despite second billing and transitioning to more character acting roles, shows that he can still hold the screen better than any of the current younger crop of leading men. At the beginning of the film, his character comes across as a complete...well, let's just say very unlikable. However, as the movie progresses, through his own actions and how he is perceived by those around him, the layers are peeled back, revealing one of the most complex characters Mr. Ford has allowed himself to play in years. Of all the character arcs, his is perhaps the most satisfying. However, the action ramps up when Craig and Ford share the screen, having a wonderful chemistry that crackles with energy, as it should be when James Bond teams up with Indiana Jones (complete with a completely metatextual line near the end of the film that acknowledges and pokes fun at their respective places in film history as iconic action heroes).
Olivia Wilde, in her role as Ella Swenson, makes for an exotic mysterious beauty and holds her own against the two leads. Sam Rockwell (Galaxy Quest, Iron Man 2), Keith Carridane (Crash) and Clancy Brown (Highalnder, The Shawshank Redemption) bring their A game to this film, especially Brown who brings a human center to his role as the town's preacher. In fact, none of the performances play hollow. However, the standout performance comes from Adam Beach, who plays Dolarhyde's retainer and bodyguard. He gives an understated performance wherein even his body language speaks volumes and provides the emotional center to the film. Without spoiling, he has one moment in the film which hits like a punch to the gut, bringing certain relationships into crystal clear focus. Its a perfomance not to be missed.
But ultimately, this film is pure, escapist fun. It takes itself seriously but not too much so. It grabs your attention and does not relinquesh it. Even the quiet moments are filled with anticipation and the performances are electrifying to the point of riveting your attention to the screen.
The special effects are top notch and almost seemless. The cinematography is worthy of the cinemascope western productions of yesteryear. It almost feels like a true western...except it has aliens in it. And what aliens they are. A hodgepodge of elements of film aliens (I'm talking to you Alien and Predator) you've seen in the past, they are no less formidable than the characters that preceeded them, they are menacing and terrifying and give the protagonists a major challenge.
It is a shame that this film did not do as well at the box office but I suspect it will be a major cult hit; as it should be, as it is a fun, suspensful thrill ride that grabs one by the privates and doesn't let go until the final iconic image of Daniel Craig riding off into the sunset. If you haven't done so yet, check out Cowboys and Aliens in the theater before it's gone. Show Hollywood that there is some room for originality in the market place...at least until the next James Bond or Indiana Jones offering.