So far this summer I’ve seen half a dozen blockbuster genre/action movies. Cowboys & Aliens is the only one to live up to my hopes. And that’s saying a lot, considering I’ve been eagerly awaiting this movie for a couple of years.
Picture a showdown building between a ruthless local cattle baron (Harrison Ford) and a tough-as-granite outlaw (Daniel Craig) who doesn’t like bullies; with townsfolk like the sheriff (Keith Carradine), the saloon owner (Sam Rockwell) and others caught in the middle. Just when the gunplay seems ready to erupt, strange lights appear in the night sky, swooping toward the town…
Cowboys & Aliens is loosely based on a very entertaining graphic novel of the same name, but it also takes much of its creative juice from classic Western film tropes, and especially from the Clint Eastwood Westerns of the 60′s. In a video interview, C&A director Jon Favreau says there was a creative decision to “keep the action in the Western language… and not completely jump off into a different genre.” And Cowboys & Aliens works because it stays firmly in the realm of the Western story. Instead of turning into an alien-invasion SF movie, it asks what would happen if the usual cast of feuding Western characters had their age-old conflicts interrupted by something — alien. Old Westerns sometimes used attacking Indians to force the warring partners to work together. This time, even the Indians are driven to join the alliance against the plundering “demons.”
The movie breaks down a little into Hollywood cliches during the climactic battle sequences (minor and nameless characters die, major characters end their feuds by saving each other’s lives, the timid guy becomes a hero, etc, etc). But up to that point and on through it, the story unfolds with excellent pace and intelligence, eye-filling cinematography, and some neat and surprising plot twists. And the cast, first rate from top to bottom, turns the stock Western players into real human beings. Best of all is Daniel Craig, who can steal a scene even from Harrison Ford, just by being still. And he’s absolutely spellbinding all the way through.
By the way, I’ve noticed that reviews of this movie seem to be split into 2 extremes: people either love it or hate it. Hmm. In my experience, a movie gets that kind of review split because it somehow breaks out of the box, and a lot of people don’t know what to make of it. Maybe it’s a good idea to go into this one without too many expectations.
Next, I’m going to talk more about the challenges of mixing the Western with other genres, a process I’ve suddenly come to appreciate, thanks to Gods of Justice.
Update, August 6: Alana Joli Abbot, one of the writers of the C&A 2 graphic novel, has now posted a very thoughtful review on her LiveJournal page. Good reading for anyone interested in either genre or in the challenges of adaptations. I especially like her analysis of the Ella character’s role. Be warned, though, spoilers a-plenty, so you might want to read it after you’ve seen the movie.