When I first saw a trailer for Cowboys & Aliens, it instantly provoked thoughts of the early/mid 20th Century dime novels (and pulp magazines) and the Saturday matinee adventure serials at the cinema. My parents were barely alive during the heyday of these two pop culture phenomenons, so I definitely have no hands on experience. Being a bit of a pop culture history buff, I've read lots about the mediums and I know they've had a huge influence of some of the great modern directors and authors. The premise of Cowboys & Aliens seemed to perfectly capture the type of campy action adventure that would be expected from those types of entertainment. Especially considering that both alien invasions (or space adventures) and the wild west were two of the most popular subjects matters in those stories and were the biggest sales among young boys at the time (which both the dime novel and serials marketed to). It seems only natural that someone back then would have eventually come up with the idea to combine the two genres. When I first heard of this film, I immediately thought of it as a homage to those campy adventure stories.
The problem is, Cowboys & Aliens is far too glossy and extremely special effects laden and way too reliant on hugs box office receipts, to be a proper homage to that era. Even if the stories of that time were inspiration to this film, the reality was it was never going to be able to properly capture the style and feel of that lost era. Instead, it had to be a special effects extravaganza with big name stars and the goal of appealing to all the demographics known to shell out the cash. With that knowledge, it seems a little risky that a major studio would green light a concept that screams campy cult classic, but try to package it as a summer blockbuster. I went into the film knowing that Cowboy & Aliens was a film that borrowed a concept perfect for the era of dime novels and cinema action serials, but it needed to rise above pure camp to become a serious, big budget action extravaganza.
Cowboys & Aliens begins with a cowboy (Daniel Craig) who wakes up with no knowledge of who he is and with a mysterious metal bracelet on his wrist. He eventually goes into the nearby town, and quickly discovers he is a wanted criminal, Jake Lonergan. He isn't just wanted by the law, but also by the wealthy and influential cattle owner with the very cowboy like name, Woodrow Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford). During all this tension, Lonergan is constantly hounded by a mysterious woman (Olivia Wilde) who wants to help restore his memory and help him find 'them.' The plot and tension is actually pretty compelling and sets the mood for an exciting western. But as the title alludes to, this film isn't just about cowboys and right when you're ready for an exciting showdown between the leads, the aliens make their explosive appearance. So, Lonergan and Dolarhyde are forced to team up together and try to rescue several town folks who were captured by the aliens, including Woodrow's son, Percy Dolarhyde (Paul Dano). The stage is now set for an old west showdown of cowboys and aliens.
The opening scenes (before the aliens' arrival) that sets up the mystery surrounding the bracelet, Lonergan's lost memory and the women intent on helping him combined with the mounting tension and drama between Lonergan and Dolarhyde (and most of the town) is absolutely fantastic at drawing the viewer into the film. The characters are engaging, quirky and unique, and fit well in shaping the story. Even after the big alien attack, the story does a great job of building up the eventual return encounter and continues to build anticipation for the resolution of the mysteries the story drops. As a lover of cinema and a good story, I've seen enough similar films to become incredibly cynical of this type of film's pay off. I feared that the build up of Cowboy & Aliens was just going to lead to an anti-climatic finish that is equivalent of using firecrackers to cap off Fourth of July.
Now, it was probably inevitable that a summer blockbuster with such a good build and several plot points and mysteries would not be able to meet the level anticipation built. But surprisingly, Cowboys & Aliens did a far better job then I thought it would while watching the film. It may just be the level of film cynicism I've built up over the years, but I was ready for a pay off close to a fart in the wind but instead, found myself incredibly satisfied. The final showdown was explosive and exciting, and the mystery's resolution made sense, and the majority of plots and issues got properly wrapped up. There wasn't too many plot holes and everything important was given a satisfying pay off. It is a film that starts off exciting and was able to keep that level of excitement throughout the whole movie. Essentially, it did a great job of being a summer blockbuster popcorn muncher.
Both Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford fit their roles perfectly. Both actors have great chemistry together, and you could sense the necessary tension between them. It's a concept that raises expectation for something silly, and it is a great challenge to actually try to create a more serious action adventure, but both actors deserve huge credit for making it work. This isn't to say this film doesn't have the cliches or some silliness or delve into being over the top. But the actors do it with such gusto and energy that you can't help feeling engaged and immersed. Ford has lots of experience playing over the top characters like Han Solo and Indiana Jones, and he brings that same type of presence in his role here. It is exactly the type of character you expect from Ford, and he really helps in setting the mood and feel of the film. These aren't Oscar nominee type performances, but no one wants or expects that here; it is exactly the performances that is needed to make the film work.
The story and writing isn't going to be something you leave the theatre and then enter into a deep discussion about over a coffee. There isn't a deeper message or any powerful symbolism. It's an action film, with cowboys and alien -- so, you are pretty foolish to expect something that will spark film debates for years and years. But at the same time, the character development is pretty strong for a film of this type and you find yourself fairly attached to what happens. They build people up enough that you care what happens to them, and you have a good idea the mission and purpose of each character.
The film does a good job of setting things up early and then making sure to provide a pay off to what had been alluded to. I was able to call the pay off a lot of what was set up (such as what the young boy would have to do in the end of the film or how the relationship would end with Ford and his pseudo son), but sometimes it is comforting to be able to know exactly what is going to happen. Many modern films are so bent on having twists and turns, that they often have plot points that contradict past events or go against what had been established with a character. This doesn't happen here. You may be able to predict the turn out, but at least things stay consistent and you aren't left confused by the results. The story is tights and is largely absent of holes or contradictions, and the characters stay true to what had been established.
Cowboys & Aliens is a concept and film that hinges on being fun. That is exactly what it is. It's an exciting and enjoyable big budget summer blockbuster. It takes material often considered camp or associated with a different pop culture era, but is able to make it work with today's expectations attached. It promises to entertain for two hours, and it sticks to its promise. If you like your cowboys and if you like your aliens, and most importantly, if you just like a fun movie then Cowboys & Aliens is the perfect summer hit for you.