When Jake Lonergan first jolts upright amidst the heated sagebrush and sand, he hasn't got a clue where he is or where he's been. In fact, he doesn't even know that he's Jake Lonergan. All he really knows is that he's got a bloody gut wound, a throbbing headache and some kind of strange metal shackle attached to his left wrist.
So when three scruffy riders amble up and ask how far it is to the town of Absolution, Jake can't even begin to give an answer. The ruffians see that as their cue to take advantage of a shoeless and bewildered man … but that doesn't end well for them. One thing's for sure, the nameless guy knows how to fight. And kill.
He still can't remember anything, but at least he now has some boots, a hat, a gun and a horse to ride into the town he's just found out about. And that's something.
The nearby dust-blown Absolution is populated by a typical group: an upright but beleaguered sheriff; a grizzled preacher; a put-upon saloon owner; A big-eyed pretty gal; and an iron-fisted cattle baron named Colonel Dolarhyde. And it's only a matter of time before Jake's going to have to tangle with at least one of 'em—a foregone fact that comes into even clearer focus when the sheriff recognizes Jake's face from a wanted poster.
But when that time comes, the deal doesn't go down the way anyone expects. For just when they're all facing off in the middle of town in the dead of night … out of the blackness zooms a squadron of flying metal ships of some kind. Buzzing contraptions that begin bombarding them and lassoing people right off the ground.
Bullets don't seem to phase those demonic-looking objects. But one thing does. Jake's odd metallic bracelet suddenly transforms into an energy-blasting weapon that shoots those critters right out of the sky.
So with time the townsfolk come to understand that Absolution needs a wanted man named Jake Lonergan. And Jake comes to realize that the absolution he needs isn't a town at all.
After setting up Jake's past as a mystery, Cowboys & Aliens slowly pieces together clues and fragmented memories to solve it. Woven throughout is a tale of redemption that unites enemies to save the innocent.
For instance, Jake and Dolarhyde come to respect each other's strengths and are able to bring the Apache and a gang of cattle rustlers into the fight too. As hard-edged and prejudiced as the former Civil War colonel appears, we find out that he saved an Apache boy after the boy's parents were killed, bringing the lad, Nat, into his home to raise him. Nat, now a man, fiercely protects his adopted father and sacrifices his life to save him. Dolarhyde voices his admiration for the kind of man Nat has become.
There is eventually quite a bit of self-sacrificial action taken on just about everyone's part to protect and defend. Jake, in particular, gives the effort his all. He repeatedly puts his life on the line to turn back the alien threat and save the people that the creatures have abducted. When the mysterious and beautiful Ella is snatched by aliens, he runs to free her, even jumping onto one of their flying ships. And then, after she's badly wounded, he carries her for miles in an attempt to save her life. Ella does her part too, for the record, and becomes an instrumental player in saving the day. Likewise, the town's preacher, Meacham, stands between an armed gunman and the townspeople. Later he lays his life on the line to protect a boy from an alien.
Jake, it turns out, is a man with a checkered past who had decided to leave behind his rustler ways and pursue a new life of love and family. That goal was upended, of course, by the aliens. But as Jake comes to grips with really and truly leaving his past in the past, he finds the strength to forge ahead into the future.
Dolarhyde teaches us that overcoming prejudice, while difficult, is foundationally important, not to mention liberating.
Meacham tells the saloonkeeper that things will go well if they can have faith. The man, known as Doc, retorts, "God ain't done much for me." To which the preacher says that we can't expect God to do everything. "You gotta earn His presence," he says. "Then you gotta recognize it, then you gotta act on it." As if to punctuate his point, a cross is seen several times, serving as a symbol of the people's recognition of God's presence and care.
The respected preacher also tells Jake to help the others, encouraging him with, "God don't care who you were, son. Only who you are." When a friend dies, Doc prays, "If there's such a thing as a soul, this man had a good one. … Please protect it." Talking about a loved one Jake has lost, Dolarhyde says, "She's in a better place." Meacham tells Jake, "Whether you end up in heaven or hell, it's not God's plan, it's your own."
In what appears to be a supernatural happening (but turns out to be a function of alien physiology), a character reconfigures from swirling spirit to solid form after being burned. The Apache perform a chanting ritual to help Jake regain his memory. Early on, the townsfolk find it hard to understand what the aliens actually are, and a young boy named Emmett suggests that they're demons—an idea that frightens the others, but sticks.
Ella's dress reveals a bit too much as she crawls toward the camera. And she appears naked in front of a roaring fire. (We see her bare back before Jake wraps her in a blanket and her bare legs afterwards.) In a flashback, Jake kisses the woman he loves. He and Ella kiss. There's one crude reference to masturbation.
From the moment we meet Jake in the desert—all covered in scrapes and bloody wounds—to the closing scene when he rides off into the sunset, someone or something is generally being pummeled, shot or blasted. Sometimes brutally so.
When Jake is shoved and poked by the barrel of a shotgun, he immediately goes all Rambo on his assailant. Within seconds he disarms the gunman and blows out his chest with both barrels, stabs the man's comrade in the thigh, leaps over a horse, slams its rider to the ground and viciously bashes that man's face until the blood sprays.
Jake knees and kicks men in the crotch, punches a guy in the mouth (breaking his tooth), slams somebody face-first into cell bars and viciously snaps a man's thumb to slip his hand out of a handcuff. Thinking Ella is a threat, he tackles and pins her to the ground.
During large battle scenes, rifles and pistols blaze, arrows zip, and spears impale as men do anything and everything they can to bring down the seemingly unstoppable aliens. We do see several well-placed blasts from rifles and shotguns hit the right spot and obliterate aliens' faces or limbs. One guy slams his knife through lit dynamite and into an alien's head. The resulting explosion obliterates him and the creature. A cornered Emmett pulls out his large knife and thrusts it deep into an alien's exposed heart. Men carry the scalps of Indian victims.
All the while, the alien energy-blasting weaponry delivers another level of mayhem. Those blasts explode on contact like grenades, sending earth, rocks, buildings and often people flying in all directions. On several occasions an alien plunges its sharp claw-like appendages into a human chest or bites through a jugular—rising afterward with blood splashed across its face.
We see one woman reduced to a pile of ash by a laser beam. A large splash of blood hits a window pane. A man is punished by being stretched between two horses. He's then cut loose at one end and dragged away by the horse on the other. We see Meacham stitch up a gaping wound with needle and thread.
Dolarhyde tells of the time he knew he'd finally become a man: When he euthanized a suffering burn victim by slitting his throat.
Crude or Profane Language
Two s-words. Jesus' name is misused twice, and God's name is combined with "d‑‑n" three or four times. We also hear at least a dozen uses of "h‑‑‑" and a half-dozen more uses of "d‑‑n." "A‑‑" and "b‑‑ch" show up a few times each. There are several crass anatomical interjections, one by the preacher. Women are called "whores."
Drug and Alcohol Content
A cowboy drinks from a bottle of whiskey while on the trail. A group of men down beer and hard liquor in the saloon. And Jake throws back three or four quick shots of whiskey while standing at the bar. Meacham pours alcohol onto Jake's gashed side before taking a quick slug of the stuff and then stitching him up.
During the aforementioned Apache ritual, Jake is given an ill-tasting hallucinogenic drink. Cigarettes are rolled, smoked … and used to light the fuse of a bomb.
Other Negative Elements
One guy wakes Jake by spitting repeatedly in his face. Another drops his trousers and bends to defecate in a stream just before an explosion hits and blows him backwards. (We see his bare legs.)
When you first heard the title Cowboys & Aliens, you either thought it was the coolest thing ever, or you just chuckled, rolling your eyes at the latest bit of silliness those movie guys keep coming up with. For a while now Hollywood has been basing movies on everything from comic books to video games. And we're about to get hit with a string of films that pay homage to board games. So why not a cut-and-paste of genres? Because, in this case at least, the fusion is quite workable and compelling.
Westerns and sci-fi flicks often have subtextual commonalities anyway. In the tradition of the classic Westerns, Cowboys & Aliens has a sun-scorched, unnamed loner who stumbles into a 19th century cattle town longing for redemption and taking heroic steps to find it. And like many a space creature caper, it also features an outside threat that unites humankind.
When cowboys, Apache braves, homesteaders and even black-toothed cattle-rustling desperadoes all come together, shake hands and fight side-by-side to save the innocents around them, it just feels good. Why, even John Wayne himself would probably have felt right at home on the Cowboys & Aliens set, calling out a hearty, "Let's go get 'em, pilgrim."
Of course, as every cowpoke worth his salt knows, a good ride doesn't mean you don't have to watch where you're stepping once you swing out of the saddle. The sci-fi equivalent of which would be: You gotta stay sharp to dodge the danger in an asteroid field. Indeed. And there are, unfortunately, quite a few cow pies and iron-infused boulders scattered about here.
For one thing, the gritty Wild West fighting is … gritty. The scary aliens are more than happy to rip open a few chests and throats. And the stabbing, slamming, bombing and vaporizing deals out death and blood in equal measure.
And then there's the passel of profanities. The film skirts the typical PG-13 trend toward blasting us with f-words, but we still hear far more foulness here than would ever be allowed around the homestead dinner table.