The new film Cowboys and Aliens, with its mashup of western and sci-fi genres, is probably not going to win over a whole lot of fans of either genre. Certainly, it’s not going to knock The Searchers off anyone’s list of best westerns, and it’s not going to knock 2001: A Space Odyssey off anyone’s favorite science fiction movies. And it’s probably not going to knock Independence Day or War of the Worlds, or, some may find, not even Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, out of the canon of alien invasion movies.
When it comes right down to it, Cowboys and Aliens is probably just not a very good movie, but, as bad movies go, it’s still fairly entertaining. I love the idea of a western/sci-fi mashup, but neither the western nor the sci-fi parts work particularly well in Cowboys and Aliens. At its best, in the first half-hour or so, it’s a pretty good pastiche of Sergio Leone’s westerns, with Daniel Craig performing well in the role of the Man Without A Name (or at least, the man who doesn’t remember his name), and I would be first in line to see Daniel Craig in a straight-up western at some point. The action sequences, in which Craig dispatches with relative ease small groups of armed attackers, are pretty good (and seem to be lifted pretty much straight out of A Fistful of Dollars and For a Few Dollars More).
But the film falters when it stops ripping off Sergio Leone movies, and rather than a new take on western themes and conventions, we get clichéd characters and types who never really come to life. Or, given the ridiculousness of the film’s central conceit (aliens invade the old west), never go far enough over the top to match the film’s big concept. At this point, I would say, “spoilers follow,” but from the moment that Harrison Ford’s Woodrow Dollarhyde says to Adam Beach’s Nat Colorado, “Get it into your thick Indian skull that you’re not my son,” well, you know what’s going to happen—poor Adam Beach, abandoned Indian child taken in and raised (at arm’s length) by curmudgeonly white frontier hero Ford, is going to end up sacrificing his own life to save Ford’s sorry underappreciative ass, and before he dies, white father and adopted Indian son will reconcile, and Adam Beach will expire peacefully in Harrison Ford’s arms. The only surprising thing is that when this exact scenario inevitably plays out, Ford and Beach play the scene with enough conviction that they almost rescue it from the hackneyed concept and wooden dialogue.
And speaking of hackneyed concepts and wooden dialogue, with the exception of Nat Colorado, whose character has at least some individuality to him, the American Indians in Cowboys and Aliens, when they finally appear near the end of the film, are less realistically depicted and more cartoonishly represented than the alien creatures that replace them in the film’s title. There’s a scene in Reel Injuns, a documentary that looks at Hollywood’s history of representing Native Americans on screen, which translates what the Navajo actors are actually saying on screen, and it’s not complementary to the western film they’re performing in. I was thinking of that while watching Adam Beach gamely translating Apache leader Black Knife’s speech, and imagining that what he was really saying was something along these lines, “These stereotypes again? I thought we were beyond this. WTF?”
Still, both Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford seem to be enjoying themselves, and they make Cowboys and Aliens worth watching, especially, say, on a hot summer afternoon in a theater with good air conditioning.
And the film also has some actors that western watchers will find familiar. It’s always good to see Keith Carradine, even if he is lassoed by an alien in a spaceship and lifted up into the heavens early in the movie. Walton Goggins (Timothy Olyphant’s other half in Justified) also makes a welcome appearance, as one of Daniel Craig’s former gang (turns out, Craig was an outlaw and train robber before alien mind wiping got the better of him).
And Goggins gets my nomination this year for Best Acting in A Supporting Role in Spite of Being Severely Handicapped by A Truly Outlandishly Over-The-Top Set of Prosthetic Teeth. Actually, Goggins’ performance and his teeth struck just the right note in the film, just over-the-top enough to be amusing but not enough so to detract from the action-adventure elements of the film.
As a western, part of the problem with Cowboys and Aliens is that the film just didn’t look right. The town of Absolution (I guess Redemption was already taken) looks like a movie set. For most of the film, I was expecting that the twist would be that Absolution wasn’t real, that Daniel Craig was involved in some sort of alien version of the “most dangerous game,” and that most of the characters we encountered were really just pretending to be living in a nineteenth century western town.
Still, it’s worth five bucks just to see Walton Goggins’s teeth.