At first glance, the concept of combining a traditional Western with an alien invasion film may seem far too silly to ever work, yet director Jon Favreau and his small army of screenwriters make Cowboys & Aliens feel as natural as a whiskey-fueled bar brawl. Although the sci-fi element is evident from its opening scene, this satisfying hybrid stays true to Western conventions with a fidelity that might surprise audiences, thanks to the fact that the filmmakers find the perfect connective material to seamlessly fuse the archetypes of both science fiction and the Old West.
Awakening in the unforgiving Arizona desert with no memory of who he is or where he's from, a bewildered cowboy (Daniel Craig) realizes he's badly wounded, and discovers a mysterious high-tech bracelet affixed to his left wrist. Subsequently wandering into a once-prosperous mining town, the stranger is patched up by sympathetic priest Meacham (Clancy Brown) before incurring the wrath of entitled, impetuous rancher's son Percy Dollarhyde (Paul Dano), whose powerful father, Woodrow (Harrison Ford), practically owns the depressed outpost. Almost as soon as the mysterious newcomer earns the respect of the locals for standing up to Percy, who wounds a deputy while intimidating the townspeople, he's identified as wanted bandit Jake Lonergan by Sheriff John Taggart (Keith Carradine) and thrown in jail. That night, just as Sheriff Taggart prepares to ship Percy and Jake off to court, Woodrow rides into town determined to free his son. Before he can do so, however, alien spaceships set the settlement ablaze while snatching locals -- including Percy -- up into the sky. In the process, Jake uses his bracelet to take down one of the alien spacecrafts. Momentarily putting their differences aside to rescue their kin from the extraterrestrial invaders, Jake, Woodrow, his ranch hand Nat (Adam Beach), bartender Doc (Sam Rockwell), enigmatic beauty Ella (Olivia Wilde), and a fistful of other locals begin tracking the creature that escaped the downed craft, and quickly find that hostile Native American tribes are the least of their worries.
For a film like Cowboys & Aliens to work, each leg of its title must be strong enough to support the weight of the outlandish concept. Anyone familiar with the Iron Man films already knows that director Jon Favreau has a natural knack for sci-fi, and thanks to a tense, expertly shot three-on-one fight that opens Cowboys & Aliens, we can confidently surmise that his talents extend to the Western genre as well. With the mysterious drifter, the hard-drinking priest, the hair-trigger bully, the brutish rancher, and the barroom beauty all making appearances early in the film, some might accuse Favreau of kowtowing to Western stereotypes. The more the plot begins to play out, however, the clearer it becomes that these aren't stereotypes but archetypes, and the writers are smartly using their moral ambiguity to keep the audience off balance as the mystery of the main plot builds. This approach is especially effective in the case of Ford's character, Woodrow Dolarhyde -- a feared local figure whose complex true nature gradually comes into focus along with the true intentions of the malevolent aliens. And while it would have been simple to merely replace the hostile aliens of the traditional Western with a foreign threat from beyond the stars, the writers of Cowboys & Aliens make it clear that they're not simply painting by numbers when our posse crosses paths with a decimated tribe and the two groups unite in order to conquer a common threat -- which is made genuinely frightening thanks to both an unsettling creature design and a tense scene that echoes films like Communion and Fire in the Sky as it plays on our darkest fears of alien abduction. The fact that the aliens are not only hideous to behold but ferocious and lightning fast as well makes the struggle against them all the more intense.
But while the direction and screenwriting combine to make Cowboys & Aliens wildly entertaining, it's the talented cast that might help to draw in more skeptical viewers -- and thankfully they're all shooting straight here. Craig is appropriately stoic as the amnesiac stranger who drifts into the small town; Ford is captivatingly complex as the wealthy rancher who isn't the sadist he initially appears to be; and Rockwell lends the poker-faced proceedings a subtle dose of comic relief as the bespectacled barkeep who just wants a little respect in his rough-and-tumble town.
So, to moviegoers who appreciate a good genre mash-up and a good time at the flicks: saddle up, because Cowboys & Aliens is just the kind of wild ride that makes the summer movie season the most fun time of the year.