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Revisiting Jon Favreau's ‘Cowboys & Aliens’ in a post-'Yellowstone' world
When James Bond and Han Solo rode together in the wild, weird west.
Back in America’s horse-and-buggy days, the frontier feel of the old New Mexico Territory probably felt plenty wild enough without any freaky fictional embellishment. But in the hands of The Mandalorian mastermind Jon Favreau, 2011’s Cowboys & Aliens (streaming now on Peacock) manages to merge the gritty wild-west edge lately revived in series form on the small screen by Yellowstone (also on Peacock), all while seamlessly bringing extraterrestrials (and scene-stealing stars) into the windswept mix.
On the page or on the screen — or even just sittin’ around the campfire swapping tales, for that matter — Westerns have proven to be one of storytelling’s most durable forms. Favreau, fresh off helming a pair of early-MCU Iron Man films and five years away from taking up the first of many creative gigs at Disney, took the reins of Cowboys & Aliens — based on the 2006 graphic novel of the same name by onetime Marvel exec Scott Mitchell Rosenberg — with a reverence for the feel of classic Westerns that favors absorbing the story’s science fiction angle into the genre rather than surrendering to it. That even-keel approach allows the movie’s formidable stack of A-list acting talent to shine as Western archetypal characters instead of bounding into action, all out of context, like an arbitrary posse of cartoonish sci-fi heroes.
It’s a good thing, too, because the star power in Cowboys & Aliens is as explosive as a keg of gunpowder. With Skyfall still hovering on his future horizon, Daniel Craig had two James Bond movies under his hat when Universal Pictures tapped him to play main character Jake Lonergan, an outlaw with an amnesiac’s fuzzy memory about who he is and who else matters in his life…not to mention coming up snake eyes on trying to figure out how a strange, Pip-Boy-like gauntlet mysteriously appeared on his wrist.
Jake rides into town looking for clues about his past, just in time to quell a street ruckus kicked up by Percy Dolarhyde (The Batman’s Paul Dano), a blustering, bullying scion of the local cattle baron who brandishes his spoiled entitlement like a loaded gun. The law quickly gets involved and Percy finds himself locked up a little too close for comfort alongside Craig’s no-talk, all-action outlaw…but that’s when capturing thieves and bullies takes a big back seat to the real danger: A surprise attack from above, courtesy of an airborne alien scouting party on the hunt for humans to abduct.
Why are aliens invading? The movie doesn’t dive too deep into their backstory, but they’re looking for gold — essentially a rare-Earth tech mineral for their purposes — while snatching up humans in order to satisfy a science-experiment agenda attached to life-or-death stakes for the survival of their grotesque, but advanced, species. As Jake eventually remembers, he’s had a tragic run-in with them once before, which explains, in a roundabout way, how he ended up with a boss-level alien weapon strapped to his wrist.
Watching the chaos all the while is Ella Swenson (Olivia Wilde), ostensibly the local woman of ill repute but actually someone (or something) far more interesting. Knowing Jake’s amnesia is tied to the aliens’ repeat attacks, she follows at a distance as the creatures target Jake’s paddy wagon, where Percy is abducted and Jake escapes wounded, but at least free, in the dirt. Enduring Jake’s stoic rebuffs, Ella finally persuades him to band together as the two eventually cross paths with Percy’s cattle baron father Woodrow Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford) — a gruff and tough Civil War vet with a finely-tuned B.S. meter that lets him grudgingly tolerate his wastrel son’s cowardly, can’t-touch-me antagonism of local law enforcement (and timid citizens).
Coward or not, Percy’s still Woodrow’s kid, so Ford and Craig team up to lead a motley band of human fighters on a ride out to the aliens’ home base in the hope of freeing Percy and other missing abductees. It’s really where the movie’s real fun begins. Instead of fighting each other, Wild West inhabitants of every type — Americans, Apaches, bandits, bordello patrons, and even a grieving barkeep (Sam Rockwell) with no appetite for violence — all unite against a common enemy whose menace dwarfs the mundane pettiness of the Earthlings' ongoing tribal squabbles on the post-Civil War frontier.
Invading the aliens on their home turf leads into the movie’s biggest action set pieces, and Favreau’s gift for making spectacle look spectacular, without forsaking the plot, shines as brightly in Cowboys & Aliens as in any Star Wars stuff he’s done at Disney. The movie’s final half-hour blasts by in a well-orchestrated extravaganza of flintlock fire and alien lasers, all while deftly interweaving character steps (like a big coming-of-age moment for the late sheriff’s grandson, played by Noah Ringer) that resolve nearly every story thread still left dangling late into its two-hour runtime.
One of the joys of watching a 12-year-old movie comes in bringing the benefit of hindsight to seeing its biggest stars cross paths. It’s fun to watch Ford and Craig — actors now more than ever strongly identified by their biggest franchise roles — as the two mistrustfully circle each other like a pair of snorting alpha bulls. That same perspective applies to the rest of the cast, with one-of-a-kind Western performances from a supporting ensemble that includes Dano, Rockwell, and Wilde alongside Clancy Brown, Keith Carradine, Adam Beach, Abigail Spencer, Walton Goggins, and more.
On top of all that, Cowboys & Aliens has aged well, too. Its creature effects remain persuasive even amid today’s highly-evolved CGI sights, and the cinematography from frequent Darren Aronofsky collaborator Matthew Libatique matches Favreau’s expansive, wide-open spaces vision at every step. With Season 3 of The Mandalorian recently concluded and Yellowstone framing out a must-watch standard for modern Westerns, it’s more than worth returning back to Favreau’s fun big-budget gambit at making a Western with a space vibe…an apt precursor to his present Disney day job of making Star Wars shows that essentially flip that formula.
Cowboys & Aliens is streaming now on Peacock. Watch it here!