The movie is based on a 2006 comic book of the same name; it is produced by Steven Spielberg, Ron Howard, and Brian Grazer; it is directed by Jon Favreau; it is written by Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman, Damon Lindelof, Mark Fergus, and Hawk Ostby; it stars Harrison Ford, Daniel Craig, and Olivia Wilde with Adam Beach, Noah Ringer, Keith Carradine, Sam Rockwell, and Clancy Brown.
The story takes place in the New Mexico Territory desert town of Absolution in 1873….
It opens with a man waking up violently with a belly wound and no memory except a few flashes of a woman and hillside ranch of who he is, where he has been, or why he is wearing a strange and irremovable metal bracelet. He is approached by three outlaws, a father and two sons, with Native scalps dangling from their saddles and a dirty dog following behind. The three try to capture him, he shots and beats them to death. Taking their clothes and a horse, he rides into the nearest town and enters what he thinks is an empty house to clean up. He meets a preacher who sews up his wound. He then watches a local cad, Percy Dolarhyde the son of a rich cattle baron, and the goons his father hires to protect him from himself, attempt to intimate and rob the local townspeople, putting him in his place with a groin kick just after he cad has accidently shot a deputy.
Stumbling into the town saloon, he is approached by Ella Swenson, a beautiful woman who inquires where he has been. He says he does not know. He cannot remember. She says he must, he will. The sheriff then arrives with four deputies to arrest him. We find out the man’s name is Jack Lonergen and that he is wanted for robbery, among other things, of a stash of gold from the rich cattle baron, Woodrow Dolarhyde.
Lonergen is thrown in jail, next to Percy. Ella shows up again to ask the same questions and try to prod Lonergen’s memory about where he has been. The two men are then shackled inside a wagon to be taken to Santa Fe for trial.
Dolarhyde arrives to free his son. He has just come from a field of burned cattle and the torture of a ranch hand spouting crazy stories about a bright light and the disappearance of the other hands. We have learned that Dolarhyde was a colonial in the army and that he is known for having special skills for torturing and killing, stories that have impressed Nat Colorado, an Apache man in his service.
Everyone converges in the town square to watch the conflict between Dolarhyde and the sheriff. Amidst the conflict Ella again approaches Lonergen to tell him that he must remember where he has been. As Dolarhyde’s men are about to overpower the sheriff and his deputies, the aliens arrive en force….
The film makes you want to generate a whole lotta lists about the things you like and the things you don’t like about it. Personally I found it to be great campy fun – lots of good jokes about itself as a movie and its characters as tried-and-true heroes and villains. Lonergen is played so well by Craig, and the first half hour so dramatic, that you almost forget Ford is in the film until he arrives as the cattle overlord with a viciously brutal past. And then the film just gets more delicious as the two leading men play off each other.
I also liked that the film’s opening sequences provided a kind of camp version of Clint Eastwood’s “Unforgiven” (1992) about the depth of social and interpersonal violence and criminality between colonists fighting over power and wealth long before you get to any “others” – whether Mexicans or Apaches or, in this case, aliens from other planets.
What I liked best – or also – was the way that the aliens simply mirror the worst of the colonists in their greed for gold and viciousness. We’re never really sure why they are after the gold, only that they will kill anything and everything in sight to get it. And we’re never really sure why they torture, maim, and kill humans except that they think of them as “insects” in the way of their pursuits – and perhaps more simply, just because they can. Even the scenes of aliens killing humans by indiscriminate fire or hand-to-hand combat is no different than those we see of Lonergen beating to death one of the bandits who try to capture him in the opening scenes of the movie, or than those we see and hear of Dolarhyde’s proclivities for torture and murder.
I liked less the fact that the Apache were characterized as a kind of “last of his kind” brand of Indians that we have seen too often in the western side of this western science fiction film. I would have liked them to have individual names and histories of their own – as complicated as Nat Colorado’s – that were not fully determined by a colonial narrative serving as backdrop about the inevitability of their demise. To have loves and passions not tied to clichés about their collective survival. To complicate a bit of the scenes where Lonergen is prompted to remember where he was when captured by the aliens (to remember where the aliens are hiding), to give cultural significance to the medicine used and the visit from the hummingbird and even why they would have responded as they did to Ella’s rising from the fire’s smoke. Which I also liked far less of about the film -- all of the gendering of men as men and women as babes. Ella is a fine sort of heroine who sacrifices herself to save humanity, but did she really have to rise naked from the flames and seduce one of the male leads? Couldn’t she have been a heroine in other, more interesting terms? Especially, after all, because she was an alien?
The next movie that needs to get made is one in which the cowboys are the aliens and the Natives are Natives in their own terms. But I still liked this movie. For all its campy fun and lack of seriousness about itself.