There’s something undeniably charming about the B-movie. For all the easy gags they offer – one-liners about shoddy production values, tall tales from veteran actors about horrible experiences on set, jokes about plots which made absolutely no sense – they have engendered a deep sentimentality in a generation of directors. Perhaps it touches the adolescent filmmaker within them, rekindling memories of those formative first steps into movies using cardboard sets and friends as the stars. Or maybe it’s the simple joy of watching something for the fun of it, unconcerned about character depth or visual prowess. As making movies has become a deeply serious business, there’s a certain joy in seeing something so patently false that you can escape into it, leaving any possible semblance of reality in the rearview mirror.
Indeed, perhaps in fifty years people will look back on Jon Favreau’s Cowboys & Aliens and feel the same warm sentiments: based on Scott Mitchell Rosenberg’s graphic novel of the same, its plot is nothing short of ludicrous.
It’s the 1870s in New Mexico, the Old West proper, and a man (Daniel Craig) awakens in the desert with amnesia and a mysterious shackle on his left wrist. After killing some would-be robbers, he rides into nearby frontier town Absolution and quickly discovers he’s infamous fugitive Jake Lonergan. Hunted by no-nonsense Colonel Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford), and sought after by beautiful stranger Ella (Olivia Wilde), he’s on his way to the pen when spaceships attack. Jake’s gauntlet is in fact a gun, and after shooting down some of the craft (but not before they’ve abducted some locals) he and Dolarhyde round up the boys, and Ella, and ride out to take vengeance on their attackers.
Hokum is the word which springs most readily to mind. The film’s premise is one of the most gleefully illogical in recent memory, and features enough stock characters to sate even the most ardent hack: the brooding roguish hero, the gruff seen-it-all-before lawman, the gorgeous yet enigmatic woman, the kid forced to grow up in conflict, et cetera, et cetera.
Yet this exact shortfall – one which would be used to excoriate most films – is one of the great joys in Cowboys & Aliens. It offers us the purest form of escapism available, a two-hour sortie into a world only available to us through a filmmaker’s lens. Add to this a cast who play the whole thing straight, ensuring the film never stumbles into maladroit self-parody or camp melodrama, and the result is a picture which offers an enjoyable, if lightweight, break from the real world.
Craig’s Lonergan is appropriately strong, silent and tough, while Ford leaves teeth-marks in the scenery as Dolarhyde, his grizzled stubble, deep-set eyes and growl of a voice all perfect for the role. Wilde has to contend with a slightly bizarre part (due to a second-act reveal I won’t spoil, but which nearly jumps the shark) but looks tough on a horse and sultry off it: this is essentially the sum of her part, but her grace and charm mean she’s more than watchable. Supported ably by the ever-reliable Sam Rockwell as local barkeep Doc and an odious Paul Dano as Dolarhyde’s good-for-nothing son Percy, the central trio offer star power to help us overlook the more out-there revelations the story throws up, not to mention dialogue which moves the plot along so efficiently it’s essentially the film’s MacGuffin.
Favreau’s direction is restricted to action scenes, stark flashbacks and sweeping pans, but the countryside looks beautiful, and the fight sequences are brutal and kinetic. The violence itself is grisly, above and beyond what you’d imagine: like an impatient infant tugging a parental sleeve it occasionally reminds us of the reality of the setting we’re seeing, if not the events themselves.
Unsurprisingly, Cowboys & Aliens is also a veritable mosaic of references. Sci-fi and the western, two of cinema’s tentpole genres, offer a wealth of source material, from the Alien-influenced design of the invaders themselves to the strong but silent hero reminiscent of Eastwood in his pomp. For the aficionado, there’s a treasure trove of in-jokes and sly nods. Fortunately, they’re delivered as sincere homages rather than smug winks, so Favreau’s film is nearer to a tribute than to a pastiche.
Although it’s unlikely to rewrite any record books, start a new craze for sci-fi/western crossovers (though, frankly, no-one is going to get close to matching the brilliance of Joss Whedon’s superlative Firefly canon, far and away the best cross-pollination of the genres) or be held up as a filmmaking yardstick. But when the cinema’s lights dim and the big bangs start, it takes you out of the real world and invites you to have fun. After all, isn’t that what cinema is supposed to be about?
Verdict: Far from a classic, but a very enjoyable spectacle nonetheless, Cowboys & Aliens makes up for in entertainment what it lacks in gravitas. It’s flimsy, patently ridiculous and has a three-act structure so obvious a five year-old could draw the changes on the negative with a crayon. But it’s hard to think of many films released this year which were as much fun to watch.