The Old West outguns outer space in fun genre mash-up
As its title indicates, this action-movie spectacle is a hybrid—the merging of two fantasy genres with their respective investments in two kinds of frontier spaces. Adapted from a graphic novel of the same name, it’s a provocative combination, with all kinds of opportunities for genre riffing, and director Jon Favreau and company make good on its implicit promise of raucously rousing entertainment.
In the actual playing-out, as in all the advance publicity, the cowboys have the upper hand. The alien monsters and the attendant special effects are scary and imposing, but not particularly impressive. In terms of characters and action alike, this film clearly has its heart in the classic era of western movies.
The designated protagonist, one Jake Lonergan (Daniel Craig), first appears in the film looking something like a version of “The Man Who Fell to Earth,” but it quickly becomes apparent that he’s a Wild West desperado with warrior skills bordering on the superhuman. Temporary memory loss and the heavy-metal apparatus attached to his left wrist link him to the sci-fi/fantasy aspect, but there’s no mistaking his roots in the myths of the western genre.
Woodrow Dolarhyde, the tyrannical rancher played by Harrison Ford, initially looms as Lonergan’s most conspicuous antagonist, but the arrival of the monsters (after about 20 minutes of standard western-movie buildup) changes all that. And Dolarhyde becomes the film’s most intriguing character amalgam—tyrant, bad dad, disillusioned Union officer and Civil War vet, reluctant sidekick and comical/skeptical foil for Lonergan, and embittered reactionary stumbling toward redemption from his over-sized personal contradictions.
The frontier town and the desert settings have much more grit and physical heft than do any of the thunderous CGI battles and attacks involving the aliens. And the film is at its most engaging when it’s letting its charming array of familiar western-movie types play out their semi-comic action dramas in the genre’s basic settings.
Particular stand-outs are Sam Rockwell as a bespectacled saloon owner, Paul Dano as Dolarhyde’s goofily violent and delinquent son, Walton Goggins as an amusingly craven outlaw, Adam Beach as an orphaned Native American who is a devoted surrogate son to Dolarhyde, and Olivia Wilde as a gun-toting lass whose bewilderingly convoluted identity permits her to play a hybrid and increasingly crucial role in the central action.
In the late going, the film’s title takes on an extra twist of meaning when a band of Apaches enters the action. The “cowboys & aliens” story also becomes a “cowboys & Indians” story at that point, with just enough historical reflection to remind us that for Native Americans, the “cowboys” were also invaders and aliens of another sort. More might have been done with that, but this movie stays true to its B-western roots with straight-ahead focus on dynamic action and a redemptive resolution.