Cowboys & Aliens (Universal Pictures, PG-13)

In fact Cowboys & Aliens incorporates so many Hollywood clichés that they become their own reality and free you to follow the loopy script wherever it wants to leads you.

 

 

Cowboys & Aliens sounds like the title of one of those fake trailers released along with Quentin Tarantino’s Grindhouse or maybe some fanboy’s YouTube creation filmed in his backyard and starring all his best friends. In reality it’s the latest feature film from Jon Favreau, based on the Platinum Studios graphic novel of the same name, and while it’s definitely a summer movie of the High Popcorn variety it’s also sufficiently self-aware enough to hold the interest of a movie-savvy adult. In fact Cowboys & Aliens incorporates so many Hollywood clichés that they become their own reality and free you to follow the loopy script (there are five or eight credited writers, depending on how you count) wherever it wants to leads you.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one. It’s 1875 and we’re in the New Mexico Territory. A mysterious (and improbably well-cut) stranger (Daniel Craig) rides into the town of Absolution which he finds to be terrorized by the iron rule of Colonel Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford) and the pistol-shooting antics of his idiotic son (Paul Dano). The town, perhaps not surprisingly, comes supplied with all the characters you need for a western, including a mysterious and beautiful woman (Olivia Wilde), a sheriff (Keith Carradine) and his too-cute grandson (Noah Ringer) a saloon owner named Doc (Sam Rockwell) and his Hispanic wife (Ana de la Reguera), a preacher (Clancy Brown) who can also handle a gun, and a multilingual Native American (Adam Beach) who might be the smartest of the bunch. Craig’s character, who we soon learn to be the outlaw Jake Lonergan, isn’t interested in playing by Dolarhyde’s rules and the action comes fast and furious from the start. In fact, about 15 minutes in this film is already in the darkest of dark territory, as if we woke up during the final standoff of Unforgiven having missed everything which came before.

The narrative concision allows for the rapid introduction of the other element named in the title: space aliens who (surprise, surprise) are attacking this godforsaken patch of earth and abducting people to their ship. In the face of a common enemy the warring factions (which expands to include a band of outlaws and a tribe of Chiracahua Apaches) must find a way to put aside their differences and band together to fight the invaders. Of course so motley a crew will not immediately mesh into a crack fighting unit but when the chips are down they come through with flying colors (sorry, I felt I had to work in a few clichés of my own to stay in keeping with the spirit of this film).

Cowboys & Aliens is not an equal opportunity picture; the cowboys get considerably more screen time than the aliens and the dominant feel of the picture is that of a classic Western with many shots cribbed directly from Ford/Hawkes/Eastwood playbook. Our sympathies are clearly meant to be with the cowboys while the aliens occupy the role once played by generic Indians tribes in Hollywood westerns, a faceless enemy to be vanquished. This equivalence doesn’t get the film completely off the hook, however; it’s disappointing that no one seems to have put much thought into conceptualizing the aliens even if it’s not their show. Surely someone could have could have come up with something better than another lame spin on the H.R. Giger-inspired Alien from the franchise of the same name, and also paid more attention to a key lesson from that franchise: most invented monsters are a lot more scary when you can only see bits of them in a dark hallway while when seen whole and in broad daylight they can easily become more silly than frightening.

Part of the fun in Cowboys & Aliens is spotting all the movie clichés which can be enjoyed for what they are because the film has no relation to any reality other than that of the cinema. When we first meet him Lonergan has a textbook case of Hollywood amnesia (he doesn’t know who he is but has no trouble forming new memories or remembering how to do complex tasks) and also steals a set of clothing which fits him perfectly. A narratively highlighted weapon will of course be used to good effect while the guy with an improbable deficiency will overcome it at the most crucial moment. You can tell how evil each desperado is by the amount of facial hair they have. Did I mention that when Harrison Ford’s character is introduced, the first thing we see is his hat?

There’s no real point to Cowboys & Aliens, it’s just a summer movie which establishes its own reality and proceeds to deliver exactly what the title promises. It has fewer easy payoffs than, say, Captain America, which will probably hurt its box-office prospects, but it’s well worth your time, particularly if you’re a fan of the old-fashioned Hollywood western. | Sarah Boslaugh

 

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