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Cowboys & Aliens

July 30, 2011
Cowboys and Aliens

Some movies start with a premise that’s so bizarre you pretty much have to be willing to get on board or you may as well not even try to watch them. The pitfall is that the filmmakers are usually not stupid, so they usually know it’s a silly idea themselves. From this point it’s all too easy for a movie to degenerate into camp and self-parody, as happened with Snakes on a Plane. Not that it can’t be entertaining, but this just doesn’t make for really good movies. Luckily, Jon Favreau manages to avoid this fate with Cowboys & Aliens, which is, you must admit, a pretty ludicrous jumping-off point.

But still, everybody loves western action movies with cowboys, and everybody loves science fiction action movies with aliens. Why not put them together, shake vigorously, and see what comes out the other side? The answer is “a whole lot of fun”, if Favreau’s doing the shaking.

We open on a man (Daniel Craig) waking up in the middle of post-Civil-War New Mexico with no clue to his identity besides an odd wound on his side, some disturbing nightmares and weird metallic bracelet on his left wrist. He’s evidently a bit of a badass, as he easily overpowers three men who try to do him harm, which also provides him with a brand-new set of really sweet old-west clothes.

In the nearby town, he can’t quite keep from attracting attention. He stops a young, self-entitled douchebag from causing trouble for the saloonkeeper (Sam Rockwell), earning the ire of the boy’s powerful rancher father (Harrison Ford). And he also catches the eye of a mysterious woman (Olivia Wilde) wearing a leather holster over her dress. Things come to a head as the sheriff recognizes the man as wanted criminal Jake Lonergan. He’s about to be shipped off to stand trial in Santa Fe when — wait for it — UFOs start dive-bombing the town, snatching and carrying off what people they can.

Luckily, Jake’s bracelet starts beeping and flashing lights as it opens up to provide some sort of holographic targeting system, which Jake instinctually uses to shoot down one of the flying craft. The next day, a posse is formed to hunt down and retrieve the missing townspeople, and the adventure really begins.

Like I said before, the genius is to play this setup absolutely straight, without highlighting the bizarre combination by raising eyebrows at the audience. And everyone does their part beautifully. Craig and Ford are great as two grizzled, immovable objects, and there’s more than one scene where their body language plays back and forth off of each other. And each one has enough time aside from the action to bring their own character-developing story, though it must be admitted that Ford does more of his own heavy lifting as far as the acting goes. As if this weren’t enough, there are two or three minor plot lines that all play out along the sidelines without feeling shortchanged or tacked-on.

But come on. Even if it’s there you aren’t watching Cowboys & Aliens for acting and character development; you come for the eye candy, and Favreau does not disappoint. The aliens are some of the most, well, alien creatures that we’ve seen in a while, and they aren’t just hidden in the dark and smoke to make it easier on the rendering. No, they’re right out there in the bright badlands sun, tearing it up hand to hand with the cowboys and Apaches for our amusement. And of course, there are plenty of things getting blowed up real good.

People seem to have forgotten that you can actually have story and spectacle together in the same movie. With Iron Man and now Cowboys & Aliens, Favreau keeps reminding us that it’s possible.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: fail.

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