Director Jon Favreau deserves a six-gun salute for having the audacity to play Cowboys & Aliens completely straight-shooter straight, and the skill to get away with the gamble. Amazingly, there is no winking at the audience whatsoever in this wild, wild western/SF/horror mashup.
Instead of taking the easy path by letting the movie be as goofy as its title, Favreau accomplishes the much harder task of making the outrageous concept work as a respectfully traditional and thoroughly satisfying western. With aliens.
Daniel Craig is grimly perfect as a steely-eyed man with no name, at least not one he can remember. After waking up barefoot in the desert with a piece of other-worldly technology shackled to his wrist, he drifts into a frontier town where signs point to him being Jake Lonergan. Wanted signs, that is, offering a thousand-dollar reward.
Lonergan ends up in jail with the local cattle baron’s trigger-happy idiot son Percy (Paul Dano). When Percy’s mean-as-a-snake dad Col Dolarhyde (a very grizzled and quite crotchety Harrison Ford) gets word that Percy’s been arrested, he shows up with several armed employees to bust the kid out. Unfortunately, a squadron of alien aircraft arrives around the same time to destroy large parts of the town. The invaders also abduct numerous townsfolk, including Percy, with high-tech lassos that snatch them screaming into the sky.
On the positive side, Lonergan realizes during the attack that his otherworldly manacle is a deadly ray-gun he can control with his mind. The rest of the movie unravels the mystery of Lonergan’s past while he, Col. Dolarhyde and a vengeance-minded posse track the aliens to their lair. Along for the ride is Olivia Wilde as Ella, a gun-toting saloon girl who seems to know more about Lonergan than he knows about himself.
Based on the comic book of the same name by Scott Mitchell Rosenberg, the movie’s screenplay is credited to no less than five people. That’s usually a bad sign, but this time it works. Mark Fergus and Hawk Ostby were two writers on Favreau’s first Iron Man movie (aka “the good one”). Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman scripted 2009’s terrific Star Trek reboot (as well as the first two Transformers movies, but we’ll ignore that). And Damon Lindelof was one of the creators and a frequent writer of Lost (which even those who gave up on the show would admit gives Lindelof unassailable weirdness cred). A completely unexpected participant is Steve Oedekerk (a writer of Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls, Patch Adams, Bruce Almighty and Evan Almighty) who shares screen story credit with Fergus and Ostby.
Besides beautifully shot desert and mountain locations, the movie features surreal images of a massive mothership that resembles a towering rock formation, and an upside-down paddlewheel steamboat that’s “500 miles from any river big enough to hold it.” The aliens not only look appropriately disgusting but are fast, big and incredibly strong. And Craig is a stone-faced icon of forthright less-is-more manliness.
Cowboys & Aliens is so interesting, technically impressive and simultaneously classic yet daringly original that it should be a contender for a wild-card Best Picture slot come Oscar time. It’s that good.