Summer science fiction movies are about spectacle. Gods channel lightning; robots deconstruct themselves in gleaming slivers of computer-generated light. All most of us really want when we plunk down our money for these blockbusters is to see something giant and fantastic that we've never seen before.
That's why Cowboys & Aliens succeeds brilliantly as a summer film. Beautifully designed, full of crazy action sequences that are genuinely original, the flick is a perfect escapist fantasy into the Weird West. Is it a character study like Another Earth, or a dark political satire like District 9? No. It's a fireworks show that will get you cheering, and leave you satisfied. Along the way, it will introduce you to a strange genre mashup — the scifi western — that's rarely been done so well.
There are a lot of Weird Westerns that have tried to get off the ground and been simply too weird to go blockbuster — Firefly is a great example of this, as is Stephen King's incredible Dark Tower series, which Hollywood keeps trying and failing to turn into something cinematic. And then there are the straight-up failures, like Wild Wild West, a gorgeously-designed movie that was one of Will Smith's rare flops, and Jonah Hex, about which the less said the better. So director Jon Favreau was taking a major risk trying to make a big-budget Weird Western, given the problems audiences have had with this quirky subgenre. Luckily for us, he came up with a visual tone and backstory that seamlessly blend the best of both the mainstream Western and the alien invasion flick.
Jake (Daniel Craig) arrives in a small town with no memory and a strange alien weapon wrapped around his arm. He's the classic man with no name, and he immediately finds allies when he stands up to the town's local bully, the drunken lout Percy (Paul Dano), whose rich rancher father Woodrow (Harrison Ford) runs the town's only successful business. As Jake, Craig is the perfect stony-faced badass, and Ford's Woodrow is a joy to watch as a dick with a heart of gold. In fact, the town's cast of characters quickly fill out your classic Western plot, about men who show their love for each other by looking past each other's assholery to the goodness beneath. There's a sweet father-son story between Woodrow and his adopted Indian son Nat (Adam Beach, who steals the show) that gives emotional heft to the shoot-em-ups later.
Though Jake remembers nothing about his past, the Wanted posters with his face on them tell us that he's a notorious bandit. The sheriff (Keith Carradine) and Woodrow are about to dispatch Jake — either to the noose or federal marshalls, depending on who wins in their contest of wills. But their petty human concerns are overshadowed by the arrival of some very Spielbergian-looking UFOs that shoot fire and abduct people with crazy metal hooks that look like the extraterrestrial version of lassos. When those ships appear twinkling on the horizon and shoot through the town, you're watching blockbuster filmmaking done right. Favreau manages to make his gimmick of UFOs in the Old West into a furious action set piece where you forget that you're watching a weird genre experiment and just get swept away by the idea of dudes on horseback fighting dudes in spaceships.
As our humans learn to work together to rescue their abducted family members, we quickly learn a detail about the aliens that's pitch-perfect: They've come to Earth to mine for gold. So they're doing the usual abducting and terrorizing that aliens are always doing, but they also have a very Old West agenda that the locals can recognize and understand. Little storytelling touches like this lift Cowboys & Aliens above your standard summer fare — it's a tale we haven't heard before, and that's fun. Plus, who can resist a cowboy with a blaster on his arm?
But there are a lot of details in the film that fall flat, too. Olivia Wilde plays Ella, who starts out as a mysterious female gunslinger but by the film's end has become a disappointing cliché. And a lot of zingers in the dialogue are embarrassingly unfunny (Sam Rockwell snarks at a guy by telling him to "go make some beans" - huh?). Plus there is a long scene where the local band of Natives help the white folks out by giving them hallucinogenic visions — which in turn gave me traumatic flashbacks to really terrible X-Files episodes.
Still, I think Cowboys & Aliens manages to overcome its failings with a soaring, original vision of both the Western and the classic UFO abduction story. In the process, it reminds us that revisiting old stories doesn't have to mean making reboots and sequels. It can also mean putting together retro ideas in completely new ways, to give us crazy visions of a world we've never seen before.