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 makes Cowboys & Aliens feel as natural as a whiskey-fuelled bar brawl. Although the sci-fi element is evident from its opening scene, this satisfying hybrid stays true to Western conventions with a faithfulness that might surprise audiences, thanks to the fact that the filmmakers find the perfect balance to seamlessly fuse the archetypes of both science fiction and the Old West.
For a film like Cowboys & Aliens to work, each pillar of its concept must be strong enough to support the weight of the outlandish concept. Anyone familiar with the Iron Man films already knows that Jon Favreau has a natural knack for sci-fi, so we know that pillar is in the bag, but thanks to a tense, expertly shot three-on-one fight that opens the film, we can confidently surmise that his talents extend to the Western genre as well.
With the mysterious drifter, the town preacher, the trigger happy bully, the brutish rancher, and the barroom beauty all making appearances early in the film, some might accuse Favreau of lazily submitting 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 characters moral haziness 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, a feared local figure whose complex true nature gradually comes into focus along with the true intentions of the malevolent aliens.
The aliens are genuinely disturbing thanks to an unsettling creature design and tense scenes involving them that play 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 and that 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 sceptical viewers, I know that this was the case for me, and thankfully the cast are all on top form. Craig is appropriately emotionless 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 movie lovers who appreciate a good genre mash-up and a good time, saddle up, because in a world of entertainment where everything seems like it's an old idea recycled, Cowboys & Aliens is just the kind of wild ride that gives you faith in Hollywood once again.