With an unashamedly ridiculous and provocative title, it’s surprising how tough and conventional this competent blockbuster is. There’s relatively little humour, considering director Jon Favreau is no stranger to comedy. It has a strict beginning-middle-end structure, and there is of course a brooding attractive hero, a sexy lass and a collection of mildly interesting supporting characters. Oh, and Harrison Ford, who grumbles a lot about nothing in particular.
Our hero is Daniel Craig, who at the start of the picture wakes up having lost his memory. Although it is the late 1800s, he has a strange electrical-looking metal bracelet on his wrist which he can’t get off. He stumbles across a town named Absolution (what?) and assaults Ford’s obnoxious son. He is arrested (for he is a wanted criminal, apparently) and thrown in prison with the aforementioned obnoxious son (terrifically played by Paul Dano). Ford rides into town to free his boy and cause a stir; he’s a bit pissed off, but this becomes rather irrelevant when aliens fly over the sky and start snatching people from the ground.
Whilst all this is going on, Craig is eyed up repeatedly by Olivia Wilde, who seems to own shares in the same stock of time-travelling TRESemmé hair conditioner as Amanda Seyfried did in Red Riding Hood. However, we get the feeling her interest in Craig isn’t just because she wants to shag James Bond. No, something else is going on here, and it concerns his shady past. Once all the setup is out of the way, the cowboys and the aliens just go to war (although the war is more local, rather than global). The people of Absolution want their abducted citizens back; the aliens want to experiment on them. They fight.
It isn’t very subtle, nor is it terribly well scripted, but the cumulative effect of watching the whole weird spectacle is rather satisfying. Craig’s acting is always enjoyable, and although Ford offers nothing we haven’t seen him do before, it’s hard not to like him in anything. I was rather appalled at the level of violence in the film, considering this has been issued a 12A rating. There’s a lot of emphasis on blood, pain and injury, although the matter of certification is the fault of the BBFC and not the filmmakers.
There’s also a subplot where Ford teaches a young boy how to be a man. He does this by giving the boy a knife and introducing him to extreme violence. The boy successfully ‘becomes a man’ when he is forced to brutally, and gorily, kill one of the aliens. I know this is set back in the day when ‘men were men’ (in other words, violent, sexist and brutish), but I found the emphasis put upon this story-thread rather distasteful.
In terms of technical achievement, I must say I was very impressed. Those who like the Transformers films try to excuse their misogyny and racism by arguing they are works of CGI genius. I found the battles and action scenes in Cowboys & Aliens far more impressive than anything Michael Bay’s ever offered up, and the final climactic scenes are magnificently done.
You can tell the idea of marrying two of Hollywood’s most profitable staples together has been a popular one industry-wise. There are so many producer and writer credits on the opening titles, it’s clear anybody who is anybody wants a piece of the Cowboys & Aliens cake. Spielberg is there, as are Ron Howard and Brian Grazer. The amount of studios involved is also staggering: Paramount, DreamWorks, Universal, Disney, Imagine, Reliance, Relativity. There are more, but I fear I’d run out of space if I listed them all.
Now we’ve had Cowboys & Aliens, it makes you wonder what bizarre pairings Hollywood has waiting in the wings: Dinosaurs & Pixies, Wasps & Librarians, Penguins & Perverts? I’m loving the sound of that last one.
Cowboys & Aliens (2011), directed by Jon Favreau, is distributed by Universal Pictures UK, certificate 12A.