The last word I thought I’d be using about a movie called “Cowboys & Aliens” is “realistic,” but what I like best about this film is the way it uses the most speculative of fantasies for thoughtful exploration, not just six-guns vs. laser shooters. Perhaps “respectful” is a more appropriate term. Without any snarkiness or irony it shows us the way that frontiersmen a decade after the Civil War would rise to the challenge of an alien invasion the same way they battled nature and each other, making up in determination for what they lacked in knowledge and technology.
As co-star Brendan Wayne explained to me in an interview, we can’t make the kinds of iconic John Ford films his grandfather, John Wayne starred in because “you can’t really do cowboys and Indians without insulting history and culture.” But a fight against aliens doesn’t require any nuance or sensitivity and that makes it possible to revisit the archetypes that continue to define us as a culture in a way that is both traditional and new.
As for plot, the title says it all. A cowboy (Daniel Craig) wakes up with amnesia. He does not know who he is, where he got the injury to his abdomen, or how a strange metal cuff became attached to his arm. We learn at the same time he does that his fighting skills are excellent and he has no compunction about killing — or relieving his victim of his boots, guns, and horse. And he has eyes the color of the clear sky over the Rockies.
“What do you know?” asks the preacher (Clancy Brown) who discovers the gunman has broken into his home “English,” says the gunman. He seems to know how to survive, or at least how to recognize danger and the vulnerability of those who intend to attack him.
The preacher lives in a town where the hot-headed and arrogant son of the local rancher accidentally shoots a deputy sheriff. He and the gunman are jailed waiting for federal marshalls — or for the young man’s father. One way or the other, they will leave the jail that night.
The father, Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford) arrives, determined to take his son home. The marshalls arrive to take him to federal court. And then the aliens arrive and even in this land where nothing is certain and no rules seem to apply, this is so far out of their experience they can only call the invaders “demons.”
This middle section is the most intriguing. The cowboys can’t go to Google or watch old movies to figure out what to do. They don’t have electricity or automatic weapons. They have to figure out a way to fight their demons using only the same qualities and resources they bring to staking their claim on the land.
They know how to track their prey. And Dolarhyde was a Colonel at Antietem. That means he knows military tactics. And what it means to lose his men. The gunman’s memory begins to return and they get help from some unexpected sources in time for a final battle. The film falls apart a bit here and the long list of writers and producers (including Steven Spielberg and Ron Howard) may have been a factor in a disappointing last act that shows evidence of compromise and lack of focus. The aliens themselves also seem under-imagined and the reveal of their ultimate purpose caused some laughter in the theater.
Director Jon Favreau (“Iron Man”) likes to avoid CGI whenever possible, and he makes superb use of both the mechanical effects and the Western landscape. The faces of Ford and Craig are a landscape of their own and both men provide heft and a sense of resolute determination that resonates with our deepest myths and reminds us why so many of them include cowboys.