Although based on a comic book, the idea for the film came first, the then unreleased comic being part of the original pitch to Hollywood execs. I suppose, a rough storyboard that you could actually buy in the shops. I’ve not read the comic, nor had I heard of it before seeing the film. This isn’t a Marvel movie with fifty years worth of heritage to draw on. But then, calling a film “Cowboys & Aliens” tells us all we need to know. It’s a clever idea, creating a comic purely as bait for movie rights.
It starts with the oldest of clichés: amnesia. Daniel Craig wakes up in the middle of the desert, his memory of the last few weeks gone AWOL, with what looks like a Pip-Boy from Fallout 3 attached to his wrist. All attempts to remove the Pip-Boy prove futile. And then it starts bleeping. Always a bad sign when things start bleeping, and throughout the film, its sudden activation acts as a handy signal that the aliens are, more often than not, about to appear over the horizon.
In the first third of the story, Craig is probably at his worst, hampered by playing the archetypal lone stranger, familiar to us from a million westerns. When disarming a gang of cutthroats with insurmountable ease, he looks undeniably cool. Unfortunately, when Craig has little to say, and tries to look tough, mean, and moody, he slips into his pouty “Blue Steel” style of acting. Initially, he’s not exactly the world’s most believable cowboy. Compared to the rest of the cast, he looks a bit too clean-cut, a bit too ripped from his days as Bond. His being an Englishman lends him the air of someone just pretending to be a cowboy. Thankfully, as he regains his memory, and starts speaking, he appears to relax into the role, and become more convincing.
It helps that he’s surrounded by a great bunch of supporting actors. Harrison Ford has only ever done one western (The Frisco Kid) before this. He’s probably about the right age now though, his older, somewhat crumpled face looking more lived in, like he’s been moving horse and cattle all his life on the great open plains. Sold in the trailers as a bad guy, he proves to be more complicated as the story progresses. Dependable actors such as Sam Rockwell, Clancy Brown, Walton Goggins, Keith Carradine, and Paul Dano (the latter pair in smaller roles) never take the limelight off the three main stars, but make their presence felt. Olivia Wilde looks almost impossibly scrubbed up to be an authentic cowgirl, but her character arc goes some way to explaining this.
On its release, expectations were for a funnier, more throwaway film. I can see why. Reason number one: the title. Reason number two: the source material, which judging by the bits of the comic I’ve seen (a quick image search on t’internet), is big, bold, colorful, and almost like Mars Attacks! in its depiction of cowboys being fried by alien laser fire.
The idea of aliens invading the Wild West feels inherently silly, yet the film mostly avoids winking at us after every quip, after every death-defying escape from danger, which I don’t think is such a bad thing. After all, there’s no reason present day Earth should have a monopoly on serious, high stakes alien invasion. Aliens were probably inventing TV that could be projected into their brains with a banana flavoured hologram, whilst we were all still rolling around in shit during the stone age. Why should they hang about until the special FX of Earth have caught up, before launching an attack? And cowboys don’t need to be making funny jokes every time they kill an alien.
I’m thankful in a way. Otherwise, it could have had the potential to be another (wicky wicky) Wild Wild West. And we all know what a disaster that turned out to be.