Last week, I caught an early screening of Cowboys & Aliens, at the Majestic Ten in Williston. One of the film’s screenwriters, Hawk Otsby, is a resident of South Burlington, and just prior to the screening, he was introduced, talked briefly about the film and his involvement, and sat down to applause as the film started up.
Cowboys & Aliens is a film about film: two of the richest genres are mashed together into a surprisingly coherent, exciting film. Set in New Mexico, a mysterious man (Daniel Craig) wakes up suddenly in the desert, with a strange device on his wrist. What happens next is a flood of clichés mainly from westerns, but some science fiction flicks as well. The result is the perfect recipe for a summer blockbuster: light, entertaining, with plenty of action and a surprisingly good story to boot.
Craig’s character has lost his memory, and discovers that he’s quick to action and fairly ruthless when confronted by four men who aim to bring him in for a bounty. Ending up in a small town, he quickly becomes embroiled in a local conflict at a bar, running him against the local cattle man, Woodrow Dolarhyde. It’s only then that he learns that he’s Jake Lonergan, a wanted man, and is prepped to be sent off to the federal marshals. As that happens, bright lights appear in the sky, complete with explosions, abductions and shooting. The town gathers together to track down their kidnapped friends and family, and the rag tag group of townspeople, ranchers and criminals set off into the desert, coming across outlaws, Native Americans and ultimately, gold-hunting aliens. It’s a silly, but fun plot.
The really good points to this film isn’t the actual story itself, but the characters. Broadly speaking, there’s a lot of archetypes here: the mysterious stranger who doesn’t remember his past, the soft bartender, the gruff, but ultimately wise fatherly figure and so forth: ultimately, none of these roles would have really worked with different people in the cast. Daniel Craig does a fine job as an American cowboy, strong, silent, and reserved. Sam Rockwell is fantastic with his regular wit (still one of my favorite actors), and Olivia Wilde does well with her surprise twist.
But the real props go to Harrison Ford: 69 years old, and still a fantastic actor. He steals the show in every scene he shows up in, with a fantastic blend of dark and angry, but at other times, fatherly, caring. He pulls off the role convincingly, and it’s quite possibly one of my favorite roles in which I’ve seen him. He’s no Han Solo or Indiana Jones here, and it’s nice to see him succeed so well in a role that’s quite possibly as memorable or at least as much fun to watch.
Coupled with this summer’s other nostalgic blockbuster about aliens, Super 8, Cowboys & Aliens makes a good balance when it comes to looking to the past for inspiration. Super 8 looked to the 1970s films of Stephen Spielberg, and this one clearly has some influence from him as well, but expands out to other influences within the Western or Science Fiction genres. Moreover, the film could have easily taken the parody route, but stays true to being a western with science fiction mixed in. It’s nothing new or groundbreaking in films (There’s others, such as Outland and Firefly that go similar routes), but this one feels more rooted in the wild west than in outer space.
At the end of this summer, Cowboys & Aliens is one of the stronger summer films, and while it didn’t amaze me like Super 8 did, it was a hell of a ride: exciting, nostalgic and fun all at the same time.