Scratch the surface of many an SF fan and you’ll find a wannabe cowboy. Scratch the surface of many a Western fan and you’ll find a wannabe spaceman.
Only one of these statements is true.
For as long as there has been SF, there have been SF writers writing Westerns set in space, from Gene Roddenberry’s “Wagon Train to the Stars” (more popularly known as Star Trek) to Joss Whedon’s Firefly (more popularly known as Let’s Kill Fox TV Executives).
The Space Western has a long and varied history, but the Western in space has only slim pickins, pard.
As far as the Western genre is concerned, the time/space continuum is a one-way slipstream. Cowboys can go to the future to hunt aliens. Aliens, however, cannot come back to the past to hunt cowboys.
Cowboys & Aliens, helmed by Iron Man’s Jon Favreau and starring A-list superstar actors’ actors Harrison Ford and Daniel Craig, defies the cinematic laws of space/time by travelling backward through the stargate of genre traditions to kick alien ass from horseback in the 1870s, and look fabulous doing it.
This is no Space Western. This is a Western with aliens. It is told as a Western; it is filmed as a Western.
In the wake of such exceptional and genre-resurrecting Westerns as 3:10 to Yuma, the Coen brothers' True Grit, and Rango, Cowboys & Aliens rides into the new day’s sunrise on a horse of another color.
Synergy most accurately describes what has been accomplished in Cowboys & Aliens: the melding of two genres into a whole greater than the sum of its parts. It's also respectful and celebratory of the traditions and tropes of both parent genres.
From the kid watching a gunfight from under the boardwalk to the ruthless, town-owning cattle baron to the bespectacled tenderfoot to the brooding loner-hero with a dark past, the film is filled to overflowing with every Western trope imaginable.
Likewise, it covers the sci-fi genre with swooping space ships, monstrous aliens enslaving the indigenous population, laser weapons, mind-controlling blue lights, and even cattle mutilations.
The cinematography is stunning: rich and textured and Western in all its glory. The action scenes are stupendous.
The acting is exceptional by a cast so rich in talent and both SF and Western resume as to risk the ridiculous: Harrison Ford, Daniel Craig, Sam Rockwell, Clancy Brown, Keith Carradine, Walton Goggins (Justified).
The script is smart and funny and with emotional notes that ring true. The characters are genre-traditional yet individualistic.
The movie’s premise is simple and adequately complex. A man with no memory wanders into a town soon to be attacked by people-snatching aliens. Heroics ensue.
The message of the film is equally simplistic and complex. No matter how different we may seem (outlaws and lawmen, cowboys and Indians, men and women), when threatened by an outside evil, it’s us against them, and we only win if we learn to work together despite blood-letting rivalries.
The morality play never interferes with how much damn fun it is.
There are sly, savvy genre and cultural references as can only be brought to film by those whole love and know the genres involved as well as fans do.
There is one suspend-your-disbelief requirement. A gorgeous woman with a gunbelt strapped over here dress does not generate much response in her male companions. How does that happen? (It's elegantly explained in Joan D. Vinge’s novelization).
Cowboys & Aliens is as close to a perfect movie as can be made for those of us who’ve waited a lifetime to see an SF/Western that takes place in the past rather than the future.
Cowboys & Aliens rocks. Are you a Western fan? SF fan? Both? Neither? Doesn’t matter. This is a fantabulous film.
Take a look at the creation of Cowboys and Aliens in our interview with someone who was there, writer Paul Benjamin.