Cowboys & Aliens
Directed by Jon Favreau
Starring Daniel Craig, Harrison Ford, and Olivia Wilde
Review by Wayne C. Rogers
I broke down and went to see Cowboys & Aliens on Friday afternoon after I got off from work. It’s been over two-and-a-half years since I last went to a movie with friends (Benjamin Buttons with Brad Pitt-an excellent movie by the way). I remember it was Christmas Day and because the theater was so packed, we had to sit down in the very first row and stare upward at the big screen for two hours. I got an extremely stiff neck from that experience, but the movie turned out to be great, so I guess it balanced itself out.
The last time I went by myself to see a film was well over four years ago. I use to love going to the movie theater and used to do it at least once a week. I would pick a time when few others would be there so I wouldn’t be crowded in my seat. What eventually started happening was that no matter where I sat, someone would inevitably sit down in front of me or directly behind me, hitting my seat with their knee or feet. I would get up and move, but I gradually got tired of doing that. So, I stopped going and purchased myself a DVD player so I could watch movies in the privacy of my own home. The reason I’m even mentioning this is so you’ll know what a mental effort it took for me to go see Cowboys & Aliens. If Daniel Craig hadn’t been in the film, I wouldn’t have gone. That’s how big a fan I am of his. And no to the question you’re probably asking yourself. No one sat in front of me this time around so I might actually go again when other movies come out that I want to see.
As you can probably tell from the title, Cowboys & Aliens is a western/science fiction movie with a stellar cast in it. I kid you not. There’s Daniel Craig (James Bond) in the lead, then Harrison Ford (Indiana Jones), Clancy Brown (Highlander and The Shawshank Redemption), Sam Rockwell (The Green Mile), Walton Goggins (the television series, Justified), Keith Carradine (the HBO and Showtime series, Deadwood & Dexter), Olivia Wilde (the television series, House), and Adam Beach (Flags of Our Fathers & Windtalkers). How can a movie go wrong with a cast like this? Also, Jon Favreau (director of Ironman & Ironman 2) directed this film, too. I always think of Jon Favreau as Sean Astin’s college buddy in the movie, Rudy (one of my favorites). Needless to say, I was pretty excited to see this movie.
The story of Cowboys & Aliens opens up with a lone cowboy, Jake Lonergan (Craig), suddenly waking up in the middle of nowhere, wounded with no horse, weapon, water, or memory. After a brief, but violent confrontation with three men who happen to be riding by in the Arizona desert, Craig dresses himself up in somewhat better clothes, takes a horse and handgun with him, and heads into the town of Absolution with the dead men’s dog trailing after him. This poor dog has a hard time of it throughout the movie because he keeps getting a new master every fifteen minutes. Anyway, once Craig reaches Absolution and is patched up by the local preacher, Meacham (Clancy Brown in one of his nicer roles), he has another confrontation with the son of the local cattle baron, known as Colonel Woodrow Dolarhyde (Ford), who keeps the town on a strict leash. When I hear the name Woodrow Dolarhyde, I think of Woodrow Call from the novel and movie, Lonesome Dove, and Francis Dolarhyde from the book and movie, Red Dragon. I suppose I’ve read too many books and seen too many movies over the years.
Anyway, the Colonel’s son accidentally shoots the town’s deputy after being kneed in the groin by Craig, who didn’t like the boy pointing a gun at him. The kid ends up in jail, but it also draws attention to Craig’s character. The sheriff (Keith Carradine) sees a wanted poster of Lonergan and quickly takes him into custody after a brief fight in the bar. I have to tell you that Craig looks the part of an outlaw. You don’t want to mess around with this fellow. I think he put on ten pounds of pure muscle for this role. I know he has a pair of thick forearms that are much needed for the fights he gets into throughout the film. Still, with his steely-blue eyes and hard, good looks, it’s difficult not to see him as James Bond, even with a western hat and leather chaps on.
Okay, back to the story.
While the Colonel is investigating the mysterious deaths of two of his cattle hands and some of his stray cows by more or less torturing the sole survivor of the incident, he’s informed about his son’s arrest. He quickly rides into town to confront the sheriff and get his son back. He also has it in for Jake Lonergan because the outlaw stole some of his gold in a stagecoach robbery. While the big confrontation is going on in the middle of Absolution at night, the aliens arrive in sharp-looking, extremely fast and maneuverable aircraft, blasting the hell out of the town and abducting several of the town’s residents by snatching them off the streets with something that looks like cables. The Colonel’s son is taken, the sheriff, the wife of the local bartender, Doc (played by Sam Rockwell in one of his nicer roles, too), and a number of others.
Ford and Craig form an uneasy alliance with each other and go after the aliens, along with the preacher, the bartender, several of the Colonel’s henchmen, and the somewhat unusual, gun toting female character of Ella Swenson, played by Olivia Wilde. What her role is in this movie becomes evident later on. Up until that point, however, you’re scratching your head in confusion as to what the hell is going on between her and Craig. He keeps asking her, “Do we know each other?” She never actually answers the question even when she explains who she is and what she’s doing there.
Of course, there are going to be a number of confrontations between the cowboys and the aliens throughout the second half of the movie, and this also going to include a band of outlaws (Lonergan’s old band of cutthroats) and about two-dozen Apache Indians. I’m not going to tell you any more about the film or how it ends. I’ll simply recount one of the preacher’s lines in the movie when he’s talking to Craig’s character, while stitching his wound up – “Sometimes good men do bad things and bad men do good things.” That’s a very important line to remember in relation to both Jake Lonergan and Woodrow Dolarhyde as their characters progress through the movie.
Did I like the film? Yes. Did I understand all of it? No.
Both Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford can do no wrong in my opinion. I thought their performances were right on the mark, except for maybe the way the script was written with Ford’s character starting out as someone who’s filled with pure meanness and then slowly turning into a good-hearted person. It was fun to see Ford play out of character for once and for the audience to despise him. I think his character should have stayed that way, while I didn’t have a problem with the progression of Jake Lonergan. After all, he can’t remember who he is to begin with, so in a sense he gets to start a new personality from scratch.
The film was beautifully shot in Arizona. The locations were scenic and had a significant role in the film for this is where the alien’s mother ship is hidden. As for the aliens themselves, they were definitely horrible-looking creatures with a chest that opened up and two rather wicked-looking arms with three-fingered hands slowly emerged to strangle whoever was in front of them. These aliens looked way too big in size for the small aircraft they were zipping around the desert in.
Like other reviewers before me, I tended to see this movie as two separate films – a western movie and a science fiction movie. I believe either one of them by themselves could have been a great film. I know the western aspects of it had me totally involved. The science fiction aspects had me somewhat confused, though I loved the special effects.
I mean why would such an advanced alien race (the creatures certainly didn’t look or act advanced) fly all the way to earth just to steal our gold. That didn’t ring true to me. There are too many other non-inhabitant planets in our galaxy that have tons of minerals and other ores on them. They could have gone to any of those planets without having to fight the occupants. Also, how many humans did the aliens actually need to abduct in order to study us? In my opinion, three-to-five should have been more than enough, but during the course of a month or so, they must have taken at least fifty or more humans. Maybe the abductions gave them something to do when they weren’t mining for gold.
Another thing that bothered me was the fact that Jake Lonergan appeared to be from that area, yet almost no one knew him. His old house was within riding distance of Absolution, plus a few of the Colonel’s men seemed to know what he looked like. Jake’s old band of outlaws weren’t that far away, either. The thing is the residents of Absolution had no idea who he was. The sheriff didn’t know until he happened to see a wanted poster for him. And, let’s not forget Ella Swenson. Why didn’t anybody question her and want to do who she was and what she was doing there? It was like everyone knew already who she was, except for Jake Lonergan, but that wasn’t made clear to the audience. Why was she wearing a holstered handgun if we never get to see her use it?
Okay, here comes a big spoiler alert, so skip this part if you want. When it turned out that Ella was really another alien species who had come to earth to get revenge on the bad aliens for what they’d done to her and her people, it was never explained how she got to earth. Where was her spacecraft? Why was she after this particular group of alien explorers and not their entire species? How did she know the metal bracelet Craig wore though most of the movie would cause the mother spaceship to explode if taken to the ship’s core? Too many questions and not enough answers.
I thought Walton Goggins’ talent as an actor was somewhat wasted on his character. He should have been given much more to do. The same thing with Clancy Brown and Sam Rockwell. I’m so use to seeing them play bad guys in other movies that it took me a while to accept them in their new roles. Just as unusual was seeing Harrison Ford play someone who starts out as a really mean individual. As I wrote earlier, I think Ford’s character should have stayed evil throughout the movie, instead of gradually getting a heart. This would have been more interesting, especially if he and Craig had a shootout in the finale. It just didn’t feel right to me. I know people, and no one changes their innate personality from one extreme to the other over the course of two days, if at all.
Still with all of these complaints, it was a fun movie to watch. I didn’t feel as if my money had been wasted. Will I buy the DVD when it comes out? Maybe if it’s a Director’s Cut with another fifteen-to-twenty minutes added to it that offered more information. Sometimes scenes with important information in them are deleted to get the film down to a more marketable running time.
Last, I think this is more of a man’s movie than a woman’s. Men who like Westerns will certainly enjoy this film.
Here’s a little footnote, Daniel Craig has another movie coming out at the end of this September (Dream House), which is a horror movie. It looks great. The film after that will be The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, followed by a new “James Bond” movie. Harrison Ford already has another “Indian Jones” film in the works.