“Cowboy and Aliens” may sound like the title of campy, low-budget film, but, surprisingly enough, this is a straightforward, well-crafted, big-budget western that just happens to feature aliens.
The premise of aliens interacting with cowboys may be hard for people to accept, but is it really any more silly than aliens invading modern times? Why wouldn't aliens stop by Earth in the 1800s?
Director Jon Favreau, working with producers Steven Spielberg and Ron Howard, grounds the film in reality. As was true with his “Iron Man” movies, as goofy as the premise may be, he treats the material seriously.
Now serious doesn't mean not fun, but merely that this isn't a broad comedy or parody of the western and sci-fi genres. Instead it is a slick hybrid of elements of both that, while flawed, is entertaining and has unexpected emotional weight.
What adding aliens into the western formula also does is give a common adversary to unite former enemies. In this film town folk, cowboys, bandits and Native Americans all join forces to face off with what they refer to as “demons.” This makes for an interesting and different dynamic.
The film opens with a man (Daniel Craig) waking up in the desert with a strange, futuristic metal device on one of his wrists. He has no knowledge of who he is, but he has deadly skills that come to him innately when bandits try to take him hostage. This set up makes Craig's character a bit like Jason Bourne in the “Bourne” movies.
Craig's unknown man heads to a local town where he's recognized as a wanted man with a long list of crimes and is thrown in jail. Then the aliens fly in, activating the device on Craig's wrist, which turns out to be a weapon. The aliens kidnap several town folks before Craig can use his newly discovered weapon. A reluctant alliance is made between Craig and the town folks and they set out to rescue their kin.
Favreau has done a good job recreating the old West, or at least the film version of the old West. The period detail feels authentic. This isn't a rushed film. When the action scenes arrive they are thrilling, but Favreau and his team of six writers take the time to establish the characters and fleshing them out into more than mere stock characters.
Before the aliens arrive we are introduced to a slew of familiar western characters: the sheriff (Keith Carradine), Doc, the barkeep (Sam Rockwell), the preacher (Clancy Brown), a tyrannical rancher that runs the town (Harrison Ford), the rancher's fool son (Paul Dano), the rancher's Native American ranch hand (Adam Beach) and a beautiful, mysterious woman (Olivia Wilde).
This is an exceptionally strong ensemble cast with even the smallest roles filled by talented actors. Brown, probably best know to sci-fi fans as the villain in the first “Highlander” film, is a pleasant surprise. As the preacher, he gives a warm, low-key performance that sidesteps cliche. In a couple of the film's strongest scenes, Brown attempts to teach Rockwell how to shoot while also discussing the existence of God.
Ford is in his gruff old-man mode and few actors snarl out a line like he can, but under the crotchety facade, there's a good man. The film nicely develops the relationship between Ford and Beach. This becomes the emotional spine of the film.
Craig gets to play stoic and heroic, but keeps the performance grounded in real emotion. Much like with his portrayal of James Bond, he brings a quiet intensity to his character. He develops an interesting chemistry with Wilde, who is more than just a love interest. There's a plot development with her character that could lose some audience members.
There are definitely elements of the script that are silly – the aliens are essentially intergalactic prospectors looking for gold – but the film overcomes this by refusing to wink at the cameras. The straightforward approach paired with strong acting from everyone involved makes this a solid piece of escapist entertainment.