Cowboys and Aliens, the new film from Jon Favreau, is a fun mix of contrasting genres as aliens invade the old west. The “demons” scour the terrain in search of gold. On their scouting mission they destroy the towns and conduct experiments upon the townsfolk that their drones had abducted.
The film opens with Jake, played by Daniel Craig, as he awakens in the middle of a vast wasteland. Startled and confused, without any recollection to whom he is, how he arrived where he was and what in the world this immovable metal bracelet attached to his left wrist could possibly be, he’s met by a group of outlaws. We can see that Jake doesn’t want a conflict but is more than able to take care of himself when it comes to fighting.
Cowboys and Aliens, on the surface, is a classic tale of Invasion & rescue. A deadly invader threatens normalcy, the deck appears stacked in the predator’s favor, until a mysterious stranger appears, initiating a two-fold mission, rescue those taken captive and completely destroy the enemy forces. However, it’s beneath the surface, on the character level, where the true story is found.
Cowboys and Aliens is really a story about finding identity and redemption. The entire film is framed within these parameters. Briefly I’ll go through a number of examples:
1. Jake Lonergan (Craig)
Suffering from a memory wipe, his journey is both a literal and a figurative search for identity. The majority of the film we consistently hear Jake reply, “I can’t remember,” when posed questions pertaining to his past. But for Jake the theme of redemption is conjoined to his identity quest.
We find out that Jake was not a good person. In his “prior” life he ran a gang of thieves and miscreants, unafraid and unrepentant of whatever bloodshed their actions may cause. Throughout the story we see bits and pieces come back to him. These moments draw nice contrasts between the Jake we see and the person Jake was before.
Along the road to redemption we see individual plot points that push the theme and story forward. We see, on a few occasions, Jake leave the others, casting the impression that he’s abandoned them; that he’s reverted to his old habits. Yet quickly we see that not only does he return, he comes back regrouped and reinforced. The preacher sums up what I believe to be the prevailing theme, when he says, “God’s not concerned about who you were, he only cares about who you are.” Jake’s transformation and redemption is complete when he acts selflessly, forgoing personal safety in order to save the abducted and defeat the enemy.
2. Woodrow Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford)
Woodrow is shown as a relentless businessman with no tolerance for error. We see a perfect illustration early, when a ranch hand is in the process of being drawn & quartered over some missing cattle. The scene is brilliant, in that we see the brutality of Dolarhyde, then get a brief glimpse of his compassionate side, as he cuts free the rope from the workers hands, even gaining a “thank you” from the ranchman, only to, seconds later, revert to his ruthlessness again, as he strikes the behind of the horse that the worker is still connected to, thus taking the ranch hand for a painful ride.
His son Percy acts out improperly in order to gain his father’s approval. In this, we gain insight into their relationship and into the type of father Dolarhyde is.
After his son is abducted though we see desperation and regret surface; we see a father who has not only lost his child, but a man who is aware of his parental shortcomings. Throughout his arc we see a transformation: from a tough, overbearing “master of the universe” character to one that finds out what it means to be a father and a friend; From a man with an ever-present rough exterior to one that acknowledges that it’s okay to be weak from time to time. We also see a man that was as stubborn as he was overbearing turn into a man that is able to put bias and preconception aside and be able to rely upon, as well as assist, others in times of need.
3. Doc (Sam Rockwell)
Doc’s character is seen as a man filled with shame and low self-opinion. As the story progresses we see him work on his problems, as he eventually stands up for himself and take action under dire circumstances, empowering himself with pride and confidence in the process.
4. Ella Swenson (Wilde)
Like most of the characters in the film, Ella is not who we initially believe her to be. Her redemptive arc plays a key role in the film’s overall plot. For this reason, I don’t want to spoil anything for those considering seeing the film, but do feel that it’s necessary to mention in this discussion.
Cowboys and Aliens is getting some subpar reviews, 2.5 stars here locally. I feel these reviews are unjust, as the film delivered on what it set out to do, adapt a graphic novel that places aliens in the old west to the big screen, in a unique and clever manner. Favreau is one of my favorite people in the business, rarely does he put forth a lackluster effort, and I wasn’t disappointed with the one on display in Cowboys and Aliens either. The acting was fine, probably a bit better than what should be expected in this type of film. The cinematography was breathtaking at times. While the action was not overpowering, it certainly packed a punch throughout, being strong when it needed to produce.
I recommend Cowboys and Aliens, as it’s a fun film to get caught up in on a hot summer afternoon. A film where contrasting genres, are persistently at odds yet seemingly so willing to meld with one another.