The trick of Cowboys & Aliens involves allowing disparate but familiar genres to bump up against each other, to mix clichés from western and sci-fi movies in hopes that the combination results in something fresh. I’m not sure it does, but it certainly results in something that's brazenly outlandish, an unabashed summer movie full of unabashed summer-movie ingredients.
In reasonably short order, the movie's cowboy caricatures get crosswise with alien caricatures. The resultant collision doesn’t quite revitalize either genre, but the whole enterprise is so patently absurd, it can’t help but offer bits of whacked-out fun.
The script plants its sci-fi seed early. In the movie’s opening scene, Jake Lonergan (Daniel Craig) wakes up in the middle of the desert. He has no memory of how he got there or even who he is. He notices a strange-looking shackle on his left wrist. Clearly (at least to us), it’s the product of a civilization that’s more technologically advanced than the one Jake knows.
Before 20 or so minutes have passed, our lone cowboy finds himself at odds with a cruel cattle baron (Harrison Ford). Sure we’ve been down this road before, but both Craig and Ford – owners of two of the craggiest faces in the business -- seem built for it.
Cowboys & Aliens saunters through standard Western situations, doing a pretty good job with them. Jake rides into the town of Absolution. After a dust up with the bullying son (Paul Dano) of the local cattle baron, Jake lands in the clink.
Ford plays Woodrow Dolarhyde, a grizzled rancher who runs his spread and the town with an iron hand. Dolarhyde even thinks he can control the sheriff (Keith Carradine).
Craig glowers; Ford sneers, and both bring movie-star punch to the proceedings as Cowboys & Aliens makes its way through some tensely enjoyable scenes. Few things in movies quicken the pulse as reliably as macho posturing, and Cowboys & Aliens has its share.
Eventually, the aliens -- who fly around in aircraft that resemble giant dragonflies -- begin strafing the town. They also yank some of the townsfolk onto their ships, presumably for further study.
The aliens don’t exactly represent a triumph of sci-fi imagination. Their standard-issue horror-movie look seems to have been cobbled together from previous aliens and leftover slime, and director Jon Favreau (Iron Man) and eight credited screenwriters don't give them much motivation beyond a predatory desire to conquer planets and take their gold.
Favreau and his team try to stuff as many summer thrills as possible into the movie’s saddlebags: encounters with thugs from Logergan’s former gang and with a band of Apaches, for example.
Sam Rockwell plays Doc, the saloon keeper who loses his wife to the aliens. And Olivia Wilde portrays Ella, a mysterious woman who joins the posse that sets out to find and fight the aliens.
Here’s a shocker: To battle the monsters, cattle baron and cowboys, thugs and law-abiding citizens, Indians and whites, must set aside differences and act for the common good. The aroma of an obviously stated “message’’ – never a good thing in either cowboy or alien movies -- wafts across western landscapes, beautifully photographed by cinematographer Matthew Libatique.
Craig hits a single note and holds it throughout the movie; he's playing a brutal man who’s unsure what he may have done in his past. Ford, who lately hasn’t exactly been hitting box-office bulls eyes, plays a character without a trace of Indiana Jones twinkle in his eye.
Watching Cowboys & Aliens, I kept thinking that if Clint Eastwood ever makes another Western, he might do well to cast Ford in a role that allows him fully to explore his dark side, something he can’t do in a movie as lightweight as Cowboys & Aliens.
Audiences likely will ride this Cowboy to financial success, but the alien invasion does more than threaten the denizens of a dusty western town; it forces the movie toward the expected raucous climax in which a small band of humans tries to defeat the aliens. A reminder: Noise is not the same as real excitement.
Cowboys and Aliens arrives at the nation's multiplexes with criticism-defying protection. Too crazy? “Well what did you expect from a movie called ‘Cowboys & Aliens?’ Logic? Coherence?”
Not necessarily, but I did expect a movie that did more than put its cowboys, aliens and us through a catalog of summer-movie paces.
Cowboys & Aliens, which has a fair measure of violence and gore, can also be amusing, but its aim isn’t dead-on. There’s no reason aliens (assuming there are any) couldn’t have visited Earth during the 19th century. The characters in Cowboys & Aliens don’t seem quite as amazed about this as you might think.
It’s almost as if they – like us – have seen too damn many movies.