I can only recall a handful of movies where the two genres of science fiction and westerns have met face to face. Standing out in particular are Westworld, a warning about the dangers of technology and how it may be harmful to us, and Back to the Future Part III, the final part of Robert Zemeckis’ time travel epic. Now from Jon Favreau, the director of Iron Man comes a new entry with a combination of the two, based on the 2006 graphic novel and with a title that plays on the well-known term, simply substituting Aliens for Indians.
Growing up, I was always a fan of science fiction, my first introductions to the genre were the likes of the original series’ of Star Trek and Battlestar Galactica shown on television in the early evenings after school. I wasn’t into westerns at the time, I never got into the likes of that until well into my teens, when I first saw Clint Eastwood’s academy award-winning Unforgiven. Since then I’ve gone on to enjoy the genre, in particular the movies of Sergio Leone, more recently a personal favourite is Kevin Costner’s Open Range.
The movie opens with a stranger (Daniel Craig) waking up in the desert of New Mexico, wounded and bleeding, and with no idea how he got there or any memory of who he is. Attached to his wrist is a strange-looking manacle which he cannot seem to remove. Shortly thereafter, he is encountered by three men who due to his wound and the metal on his wrist, take him to be an escaped prisoner. When they try to capture him to take him into a nearby town for a possible bounty, he instinctively dispatches them quickly, taking a horse, their clothes, and weapons.
Travelling into the nearby town, he encounters and humiliates a drunken man named Percy Dolarhyde who was terrorizing the town. Recognised as Jake Lonergan, a wanted fugitive and after almost escaping, is captured and imprisoned by the Sheriff, to be handed over to Marshalls along with Percy who had accidentally shot one of them. Woodrow Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford) turns up that night, demanding that his son Percy be released, and Jake be handed over to him for stealing Dolarhyde’s gold, but the town is attacked under the cover of darkness by alien ships, and several of the town’s people, including Percy, are kidnapped by the craft. During the attack, Jake manages to shoot down one of the craft with the device attacked to his wrist, and the occupant of the craft, perceived by the remaining towns people to be demons, escapes the town, leaving a trail which Dolarhyde decides to follow to rescue their people.
The movie could have easily been played for laughs, as the title has a slight feel of a pun to it, but fortunately Favreau has decided to keep this a serious action western, with science fiction elements (at times heavily) thrown in. The majority of western movie clichés are here, from the town drunk terrorizing people, the man who’s never picked up a gun in his life, the priest who has, the kid with a dog, and the indian turned common man – all elements from numerous movies which could have gotten tired very quickly. The only thing missing is a drunken Mexican mariachi playing a guitar – that might have been too much and, thankfully Favreau has left such a cliché out.
There are good performances all round and a fair amount of development in the characters, more than you would expect from a western, with Daniel Craig (who replaced Robert Downey Jr. due to scheduling) plays Jake as a haunted slowly remembering what happened prior to us meeting him. Harrison Ford also gives one of his better recent performances, playing a man who despises war, having been a Colonel in the American civil war, but won’t back down from a fight and is determined to rescue his son. Olivia Wilde is also good as Ella, a woman from the town who joins the posse heading to rescue the townsfolk, realising that Jake, who is unwilling, may be their best hope of succeeding. The cast is rounded out by such character actors as Sam Rockwell, Clancy Brown, and Keith Carridine (who some will recognise from the TV western show Deadwood). Also unusual, but a very nice touch, is one of the alien characters who has a personal grudge with one of the characters and actually acts out of retribution towards them, which came across rather well for a CGI and a non-spoken character.
I’ve heard reviews of the movie, stating that once the aliens arrive in the movie, that it starts to degrade some, but this was not my experience. Yes, there are some pacing problems in the middle part of the movie where it starts to drag a little, but the scenes this refers to are actually alien free moments, when the posse encounter a group of outlaws with ties to Jake, and a tribe of Indians who blame them for the alien/demon attacks, saying that the white man has caused the trouble. All of this though is necessary to set up elements crucial to the ending of the movie, which made for an exciting and particularly satisfying finale.
There have also been reviews that slated the design of the aliens, but they are just what it says, alien, they incorporate elements from a handful of alien designs we’ve seen before, so there is nothing particularly ‘new’ about them, but they are not just men in suits, and the CGI effects for them, as well as the effects for all the things like the alien crafts and weapons, are fluid and work to serve the story. The direction of both the character moments and the action sequences is very well handled, never allowing things to get confusing considering how much may be going on at one time on-screen. George Lucas could learn a thing or two about making a movie with special effects from this, as well as the editing (especially towards the movie’s end following several storylines running concurrently), which at no point felt jarring as it went from one scene to another.
Overall, anyone who loves one of these two genres and has a passing interest in the other will enjoy this movie, it runs for 118 minutes, so with the end credits it does not go too close to the two-hour mark and out-live it’s welcome. The action sequences make for some adrenaline inducing moments, as well as a few jump moments (yes, I did jump once – but there were more than one scene). I would advise anyone who is considering taking an under 12 to see the movie (it’s rated 12A) have a look into the details on the BBFC website, as it is quite graphic in some moments, showing gunshot impacts, bloody wounds, tense scenes and as mentioned there are a couple of moments where it may be frightening to younger viewers.