Cowboys & Aliens is a highly enjoyable film with a good heart. It’s a great way to while away a couple of hours, and audiences will be the better for having been exposed to its themes. It could have been a classic, however, had the filmmakers done a bit more homework about how great movie Westerns of the past were assembled.
Directed by Jon Favreau (the Iron Man films, Elf, Zathura) from a script by multiple hands, Cowboys & Aliens has plenty of energy and action and is quite enjoyable, but it suffers from a curious lack of interesting plot twists and a rather glaring casting misstep. Most classic Westerns, contrary to contemporary beliefs, were given excellent, complex plots with strong character motivations. Unfortunately, the plot of Cowboys & Aliens is relatively simple.
We know from the film’s title and trailers that aliens are going to attack in the Old West, and it’s axiomatic that once that happens, the earthlings will fight back. So, no surprises there. Once the Western-standard mysterious stranger Jake Lonergan (Daniel Craig) arrives in town, we know the aliens won’t be far behind. And once he poses a challenge to the rule of the Western-standard arrogant ranch king Col. Woodrow Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford), we know that the two will reconcile at some point in order to fight the aliens together.
The same is true of the choices made by Dolarhyde’s arrogant idiot son, Percy, Indian guide Nat Colorado (Adam Beach), and the tribe of Apache Indians who capture the small band of people fighting the aliens. Colorado is a likeable character, thanks to Beach’s understated performance and his character’s interesting and laudable longing to be a valued member of the society and in particular of Dolarhyde’s ranch team. Unfortunately, he’s not seen all that much.
The Apaches inject dramatic energy and an amusing element of political incorrectness in their savage, unruly celebration after capturing a group of white settlers. But none of them are given complex or particularly unusual characters. Of course, although classic Hollywood Westerns showed the Indians in a much more positive light than contemporary film historians acknowledge, they weren’t always given characters as complex as the protagonists’, just as is the case here. That’s natural to any story: the subsidiary characters aren’t explored as deeply as the main ones. And in Cowboys & Aliens, as in the best Westerns of Hollywood’s golden age, the Indians are shown making real, reasoned choices, which is a nice throwback to the classic Western approach.
Another plus is actor Walt Goggins, who is amusing as Hunt, one of the villains. Alas, he, too, doesn’t get nearly enough screen time to make a sufficient impact.
There’s one interesting plot twist involving mysterious lady Ella Swenson (Olivia Wilde, Tron Legacy, Year One, House), but even that is obvious fairly early on, given her rather strange behavior.
Where this film most differs from the classic Hollywood Western is in the decision to cast two extremely stolid, unemotional actors to play the stoic and fairly formulaic main characters, Lonergan and Dolarhyde. Although they’ve both been successful as action heroes, neither Craig nor Ford conveys much personality these days, and as a result they sap some of the potential energy from the film.
When one considers the great Western actors of the past, what stands out is the personal touch each one brought to the genre–John Wayne’s humor, Jimmy Stewart’s emotional vulnerability, Randolph Scott’s grit and determination. (Clint Eastwood set the pattern for today’s taciturn, joyless Western hero/antihero.)
Likewise, the great villains of the past, such as Barton MacLane, Jack Palance, Walter Brennan (also one of the world’s greatest sidekicks), Eli Wallach, and Lee Marvin, brought a delightfully perverse joy to their villainy–it’s interesting to note how many of their memorable scenes show these characters smiling or even grinning as they do their evil deeds. The contemporary cliché is that nobody in the Wild West ever smiled. It’s silly, false, and dramatically limiting, and it’s a shame that Cowboys & Aliens doesn’t transcend that. Ford, in particular, doesn’t manage to inject much humanity into his character until the film nears its climax.
These are problems that prevent Cowboys & Aliens from reaching its full potential, but the film has a great deal going for it. It includes a good deal of Christian imagery, some of it overly obvious (beginning with the town’s name, Absolution) but laudable nonetheless, and the Christian theme of personal redemption is evident throughout the film. The latter is not a necessary choice of theme for a film about alien attacks, and hence it is to the filmmaker’s credit for including it. In addition the film includes a personal, Christlike sacrifice which is emotionally and thematically satisfying.
A further and perhaps even more effective Christian element is the presence of a fascinating and complex character: the local parson, Meacham. Superbly played by Clancy Brown, Parson Meacham is a clearly sincere and knowledgeable Christian, and he’s no sissy. He can handle a gun quite well, and he teaches one of the characters how to shoot. He even gets the drop on Lonergan when the latter first arrives in town. Meacham is a truly unusual character, and I would be happy to see an entire movie with him as the central character or the protagonist’s best friend. Unfortunately, for reasons I won’t reveal so as not to spoil the story for those who haven’t seen the film, Meacham, too, is not in many scenes and is given suitable prominence in even fewer.
Also, as the historical/fantasy novelist Lars Walker has observed, the filmmakers make a very important choice in treating the story seriously, and not tarting it up with irony. Had they done the latter, audience involvement would have been undermined radically, perhaps fatally.
Like the great Westerns of the past, Cowboys & Aliens has some highly interesting characters in subsidiary roles–Meacham, Hunt, and Colorado. Where it differs from the classics is in the central characters, who are less engaging than they should be. Personally, I would have liked to see much more from such smartly drawn and well-acted characters–but of course that would leave much less time for the sci-fi elements. All of this suggests that I would rather watch a classic Western than a modern sci-fi film. I confess: mea maxima culpa.
So don’t get me wrong: Cowboys & Aliens is quite enjoyable and diverting, and its themes are praiseworthy. It’s rather boldly Christian and politically incorrect at times, which I appreciate. It could have been more interesting and insightful into the human condition, but these saving graces make it a worthwhile summer popcorn film.
But, boy, when is Hollywood going to remember how to make a real Western?