I have to admit, when I first heard that Jon Favreau would be directing a movie called Cowboys & Aliens my inner geek started doing cartwheels (the real me can’t do them). Favreau did a great job with the Iron Man movies and Elf is a must watch for me at Christmastime, so it goes without saying that I was excited to see how Favreau would tackle the innovative concept of cowboys fighting aliens. So was my inner geek satisfied after watching Cowboys & Aliens or did he bang his head against a wall in frustration after leaving the theater?
Before delving into my thoughts about the movie, I think it’s important to point out that Cowboys & Aliens is based on a 2006 graphic novel of the same name. I had the chance to read the comic before watching the movie and must say I am glad they just based the movie on the book, instead of transferring the panels straight onto celluloid. The comic isn’t bad, but I think the movie works better.
Speaking of comics, this summer has more or less been the summer of the superhero, so it’s interesting that one of the last “popcorn” movies of the summer involves a lesser known property whose heroes are ordinary men with no super powers. Of course, one could make the argument that cowboys were the first American heroes and their mystique still appeals to Americans. In spite of this, you could say that the western is a dying genre, having been replaced by modern action movies and science fiction films. Of course, True Grit and 3:10 to Yuma are recent examples of critically successful movies in the traditional western mold, but these two movies were remakes of older movies, so they didn’t break much new ground. **Disclaimer: I was never really one for westerns, but recently I’ve developed an appreciation for the genre. By no means do I claim to have an extensive background in the genre, but I can recognize its basic themes and conventions.**
Ok, that’s enough for today’s installment of Stephen Savage and the American Western. The reason I made such a big deal about the genre and its conventions is because I think it’s important for people to know that Favreau has pulled a trick on us. He has more or less made a western that features sci-fi villains. In a nutshell, the title of the film is misleading in that the movie is much more a western than science fiction film. Themes from westerns run throughout the movie and the sci-fi elements are minimal, outside of the fact that aliens are attacking the settlers.
So what stood out? The performances by the two male leads, Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford. These two men are some of the best in the business today and they both give strong performances. Craig’s performance as Jake Lonergan further solidifies his status as one of the top leading men in Hollywood. To say that Lonergan is a badass might be an understatement, he’s freaking awesome! I can only imagine the feeling Craig invokes in viewers as Lonergan is similar to the feeling John Wayne invoked in viewers back in the day. Lonergan is totally cool and in control. The casting director for Cowboys & Aliens should be applauded for casting Harrison Ford to play opposite Mr. Craig. The film features two strong male leads and picking someone like Harrison Ford really helps the movie keep balance. Putting someone else opposite Lonergan might have ruined the movie, as you needed someone with gravitas similar to Daniel Craig to pull the movie off. Who are we kidding? The movie stars James Bond and Han Solo! If that doesn't interest you, go ahead and stop reading this review. Seriously. Another nice part of the performances is that unlike other films where big stars star opposite each other, Craig and Ford work well together and have good rapport. I didn't feel like the two stars phoned in their performances to collect a paycheck and take my money. They both bring their "A" game and it's a lot of fun to watch.
As mentioned above, the movie works best as a western. If you’re looking for a big summer sci-fi blockbuster you are almost sure to be disappointed. The science fiction elements of the movie play second fiddle to the western heart that beats throughout the movie. I believe this is to the movie’s benefit. I think playing up the sci-fi elements might have made the movie extremely silly. Is Cowboys & Aliens on the same level as great modern westerns like Unforgiven? Of course not, but I think it has enough key themes and elements of the traditional Western to please fans of the genre. The theme of redemption runs throughout the film. The American West represented a new frontier, a place for people to start over. Cowboys & Aliens follows characters as they strive to redeem themselves while struggling against forces they’d have never imagined fighting.
Overall, I really liked Cowboys & Aliens. The more I’ve thought about it, the more anxious I’ve been to go back to see it again. It was that good. I think if people go into it with an open mind and know that they’re seeing a fun summer movie in the vein of the traditional western they’ll have a good time. There is only one aspect that I think might ruin the film for some. It involves the film’s execution of some of its sci-fi elements. You must be willing to suspend disbelief, this is essential. Let's be honest, if you can’t fully suspend your disbelief, why in the hell are you watching a movie called Cowboys & Aliens? If you like having a good time watching movies in the theater, go see Cowboys & Aliens. I don’t think you’ll regret it.
Rating: Very Good
Verdict: Check it out! What Favreau has done is pretty genius. He’s made an enjoyable movie in the vein of the traditional western that incorporates sci-fi elements without them being a distraction. If you let yourself be taken in by the movie, you’ll have a great time!
Suspend disbelief: I can’t stress this enough: If you are willing to suspend disbelief you should really enjoy the movie. Give yourself over to the concept (cowboys encountering creatures from another world) and you should have an enjoyable experience. I think it’s important for viewers to know the film they are going to see is more a western than sci-fi film. If you keep this in mind you shouldn’t feel letdown by the movie. The only potential roadblock I see to people enjoying the film is if they aren’t willing to totally suspend disbelief with one sci-fi aspect of the film. I’m not going to say what it is, but if you see the movie and don’t like it, I’m almost certain I can pinpoint the scene where you “checked out”.