Cowboys and Aliens: A Sci-Fi Western

L-R: Harrison Ford and Daniel Craig in Cowboys and Aliens. Courtesy of Universal.

Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford team up in Cowboys and Aliens to save the town’s people after they were abducted by aliens.

It isn’t often that Harrison Ford teams up with James Bond but he always finds a way to make it count. By this point in his career, it had been just over 20 years since acting alongside Sean Connery in the third Indiana Jones movie. This time around, Ford finds himself with the newest Bond. I didn’t think anything of it at the time of its release but it’s such a cool piece of trivia. Ford is also a veteran of the Western genre and brings about a sense of authority to the role. Ford is playing the role that would go to John Wayne if this were a 1960s or 1970s movie. It would be fun to think of Ford and Wayne starring together but Ford’s big break came after Star Wars. He gets a hat but they make sure that it doesn’t remind audiences of Indiana Jones.

1875. Arizona Territory. When Jake Lonergan (Daniel Craig) wakes up at the start of the film, he has no idea who he is–the man with no name. The town of Absolution is going to depend on him in saving the day. The town lives in fear and doesn’t do anything unless Colonel Woodrow Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford) says so. Jake slowly begins to remember who he is and why he has a glowing bracelet on his wrist. Meanwhile, there’s some mystery surrounding a traveler, Ella Swenson (Olivia Wilde). When the town faces its own doomsday, everyone comes together as one: Jake, Ella, Dolarhyde and his folks, outlaws, and the Chiricahua Apache warriors. Working together is the only way to save their people and run the aliens out of town and perhaps off of the planet.

Westerns and sci-fi are their own worlds. On paper, you don’t think that the idea would mesh well together. Putting the two genres together requires a delicate balance–one that required several screenwriters. It’s enough that the book drew Steven Spielberg’s interest before it was published. In the press notes, Spielberg comments: “I kept wondering why no one had done anything like this before.” He’s not wrong–think The Searchers meets Close Encounters of the Third Kind. This is a film with everything that helps to make Westerns what they are. You have people teaming up with the folks that they would normally be trying to shoot. While they might not be friends, they all have a common enemy in the aliens. But anyway, they take the Western tropes and twist them around.

From the outside looking in, they could have played this film as a comedy but they don’t. The film is very serious in tone and it shows–you have Harrison Ford making sure of this. If not the aliens, it’s possible that Ford’s Dolarhyde would be the film’s antagonist especially when he thinks that Jake stole his gold. Speaking as a Harrison Ford fan, it would be very weird because Ford is almost always the hero. It would be like casting Cary Grant and making him a villain–it just doesn’t happen. This is the Old West and the town’s people do not know what we know today about outer space. When the aliens first arrive, town preacher Meacham (Clancy Brown) thinks that they’re demons.

Design wise, this is a production that spans both Bonanza Creek Ranch and San Cristobal Ranch in New Mexico and the Universal soundstages. The latter plays home to the tunnels and caverns where the abductees are kept. This is a film that brings authenticity to its design whenever it is possible. It also goes for how characters are represented, too. Back in 1975, there were several land incursions and the Apache were fighting to hang on to what they had. But in any event, everything comes to a climax at Plaza Blanca and you couldn’t ask for better scenery in a Western.

The visual effects are stunning in their own right. You don’t want to reveal the aliens right away but when you do, it harkens back to the 1980s sci-fi movies. Throw in the fact that they shoot on film instead of digital and one can only appreciate this film even more. Cowboys and Aliens makes for a solid addition to sci-fi canon in this aspect.

Jon Favreau does his best as a filmmaker to bring these two genres together. He was coming off of both Iron Man and Iron Man 2. Behind the camera, you have a number of powerhouse filmmakers working on this film including Steven Spielberg, Brian Grazer, and Ron Howard. Joining them for the ride are Lost‘s Damon Lindelof and Star Trek‘s Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman. This is a team that took what worked in the classic Westerns and blended it with sci-fi. They might not be able to get John Wayne but they cast his grandson, Brendan Wayne, as Deputy Lyle.

They keep the setting and theme of Scott Mitchell Rosenberg’s comic while adapting the film for the screen. The film is really just adapting the concept of what takes place in the comic. You’re still getting cowboys and aliens but not in the sense of everything happening as it does in the comic. It’s been over a decade since reading the comic but the film was my introduction in 2011. I didn’t read the comic until after watching the film on opening day. Years later, the film is still entertaining and it makes you wish that Ford and Craig would have worked with each other a few more times.

Cowboys and Aliens is an action-thriller unlike anything we’ve ever seen before.

DIRECTOR: Jon Favreau
SCREENWRITER: Roberto Orci & Alex Kurtzman & Damon Lindelof and Mark Fergus & Hawk Ostby
CAST: Daniel Craig, Harrison Ford, Olivia Wilde, Sam Rockwell, Adam Beach, Paul Dano, Noah Ringer, Keith Carradine, Clancy Brown

Universal released Cowboys and Aliens in theaters on July 29, 2011. Grade: 4/5

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Danielle Solzman

Danielle Solzman is native of Louisville, KY, and holds a BA in Public Relations from Northern Kentucky University and a MA in Media Communications from Webster University. She roots for her beloved Kentucky Wildcats, St. Louis Cardinals, Indianapolis Colts, and Boston Celtics. Living less than a mile away from Wrigley Field in Chicago, she is an active reader (sports/entertainment/history/biographies/select fiction) and involved with the Chicago improv scene. She also sees many movies and reviews them. She has previously written for Redbird Rants, Wildcat Blue Nation, and Hidden Remote/Flicksided. From April 2016 through May 2017, her film reviews can be found on Creators.