“Cowboys and Aliens” | a film review by Gary Chew
Just to let you know: there are cowboys and Indians in “Cowboys and Aliens.” The Indians are much how you’d expect Apaches to look in Arizona Territory during the late 19th century. But the aliens resemble the “Sigourney Weaver” variety of film aberration, those disgustingly drippy ogres that ambulate with the same jerky movements robotic figures make, scurrying over the “District 9” set.
But, the cowboys are about as authentic-looking as any Sam Peckinpah ever stood up in front of camera. And that’s good, for “C&A” seems to be making the siren’s call to the ghosts of Jack Elam and Elisha Cook, Jr. to come join the party. Indeed, a real hoop-de-do, as Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford try to (as Rodney King once suggested) “get along.” The dynamically cast duo rides out to stamp out what the hell’s going on with the bizarre things in the sky that swoop down and bomb their little town, and sweep up some of its citizens from the street, lassoing them into the passing airships, the likes of which the good townspeople have never seen, afore.
Daniel Craig (“Sylvia,” “Quantum of Solace“), as Jake Lonergan, can’t remember a damn thing when he wakes up, alone, out in the mesquite and rocks of the Old West boondocks. He has some kind of high-tech bracelet on his left wrist. To a fella back in the 1800s, the device on Jake’s arm might be called “new-fangled-looking.” But this lonesome stranger is much too terse and unassuming to ever say such a thing about something he can’t, for the life of him, get unfastened.
After laying waste a trio of would-be highway men, Jake (a la Clint Eastwood) heads for Absolution—that’s the name of the town—trying to figure what’s going on with the amnesia thing … and this wristwatch thing slowing his circulation. Wristwatches hadn’t gotten as far west as Arizona Territory, yet. But Jake and the town folk are soon to see many more things that haven’t, as yet, been invented—at least in this solar system.
Fear runs amuck in Absolution under the thumb of the local entrepreneurial bad guy who has a name you won’t forget: Woodrow Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford, aka Indiana Jones). He’s got a ne’er-do-well son named Percy (Paul Dano, “There Will Be Blood“) who, just outside the saloon, also incurs Mr. Lonergan’s wrath. It isn’t pretty.
Up in the sky on the low horizon, after sundown the day Jake has ridden into Absolution, it looks to be a big, freaking UFO show… like the one that scared the pants off Phoenix back in ’97. (That’s 1997.) The UFOs are coming Absolution’s way—and these aircraft have got ordnance to drop. But the town folk aren’t going to let a little thing like unidentified flying objects (well before Orville and Wilbur Wright ever did Kitty Hawk) get the best of them… explosives going off, or not.
With Lonergan and Dolarhyde in the lead, a posse heads out to track strange footprints discovered on the dirt street just after the UFO raid. That sets in motion a number of events that includes Lonergan meeting up with a lovely young miss named Ella (Olivia Wilde, “The Change Up”), who may not be from Absolution, or anyplace else on earth, but she is smart and pretty and wants to help Jake remember himself and what he’s done. It’s clear, too, Ella is committed to another mission. And finding out exactly what that is, proves to be something that will keep you attentive watching “C&A.”
Standout grizzled and consarned characters to watch for in the posse are Clancy Brown (“Carnivále“) as Preacher Meacham; Keith Carradine (“Deadwood“) as Sheriff Taggart; Walter Scroggins (TV’s “The Badge”) as Hunt; but, clean-shaven, it’s Sam Rockwell as Doc, the saloon keep, “C&A’s” only “dude.”
“Cowboys and Aliens” has everything to satisfy the modern-day moviegoer. It’s obliquely funny and pregnant with stretches of well-acted, action-packed conflict that also creeps you out. The film is touching, mysterious and mystical. At the end, it even has a tender-touch placed among some of the actors… a little like Terrence Malick wrote for the close of his recent film, “The Tree of Life.”
There’s also just-right music by Harry Gregson-Williams. And Matthew Labatique provides memorable cinematography (mostly shot in the beautiful desolation of New Mexico ). Computer-generated images appear as real as technically possible, I guess.
There are many entertaining moments scattered through “C&A.” But as a whole, they don’t jell as well I hoped they would for this anxiously awaited picture.
Attempting to put my finger on it, I think I’ve figured out why I, personally, sense a modicum of disappointment with “C&A.” The promotion of the movie routinely uses the scene of the aerial attack on Absolution. I saw no other abnormal-phenomenon scenes used to tout the film, other than the ones showing Daniel Craig’s wrist jewelry. What you need to know is… most of the out-of-the-ordinary scenes that take up later sections of “C&A” finally make it to the screen well after the filmgoer has gotten well-settled-in with the feature.
To put a finer point on it, and this is just me talking, here: I came to “C&A” expecting its sci-fi chops to reflect the technology revealed in the trailer and other pre-release art… much in tandem with the so-genuine-looking Old West segments.
Well, they’re not.
Art-savvy friends of mine describe the kind of art used to display “C&A’s” later sci-fi sections as “Steampunk.” Steampunk is something that might be, for example, depicted in anything brought to an image from the literature of H.G. Wells and Jules Verne and other such well-read authors. It was the 80s and into the early 90s that Steampunk made the scene. (That’s the NINETEEN-hundreds.)
Soooo, to zoom in: my seeing only the non-Steampunk technology shown in the trailer, over and over, set me up to expect more authentic-looking sci-fi in later moments. Instead, Steampunk was trotted out, for the very first time. My expectations for “C&A” were denied due to the fact space and space people in it, are not, say, created from the mold of a Stanley Kubrick, HAL 9000 computer, but taking on more shape from the genius of Terry Gilliam. Remember his film, “Brazil .”
Going in, I felt any Kubrick take on future tech would likely lay a profound message on the filmgoer about futuristic civilizations in the universe that are much more advanced than ours, here… .even back then, when many on this part of a beautiful planet really were cowboys and Indians… or pioneers heading, in their covered wagon, to the local drive-in to see another John Wayne movie.
On the other hand, steampunking the tech art for the later sci-fi scenes does hold with the tone of the film’s script commission (six seasoned screenwriters). Therefore, I’m not saying the film isn’t good because I’m disappointed. It’s more about taste and expectation and, maybe, not going, completely, with director Jon Favreau’s program.
But, I ‘d bet my 1873 model Rolex that you’ll get a hoot out of the entertaining film, now open and known to the world as… “Cowboys and Aliens.”
Beam me up, Hoppy, so we can see that really new Western, “A Cowboy & Sigourney Weaver.”