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Rapid Review: Cowboys and Aliens

July 30, 2011

Let’s face it – based on the title alone I was already skeptical about this movie.  Also, having been in the theater for approximately six months watching audience reaction to the previews, I admit my worry was compounded.  During the first preview I saw in the theater for Cowboys and Aliens, the audience reaction can be summed up by the following comments:  “Really?!”, “That’s a joke, right?”, “Is this one of those ‘Don’t talk during the movie’ ads”?

Cowboys and Aliens has a brooding and attractive star in Daniel Craig, a director (Jon Favreau)who has proven himself capable of tackling the action genre with aplomb, and a screenplay co-written by LOST helmer Damon Lindelof.   It also has Harrison Ford, who as he ages depends more and more on his physical appearance to do the acting for him.  “Gruff” to “Compassionate Gruff”seems to be the only range he’s capable of emoting these days.  There’s also Olivia Wilde (who managed to take Tron:Legacy seriously) as the comely female sidekick, and Sam Rockwell (as a minor character) who, as usual, manages to act the pants off of everyone else. 

Brass knuckles get a much needed makeover

Since the title is about as accurate an assessment of the story’s basic plotline as you can serve up, here are the minute details.  We start off in New Mexico in the late 1800s.  In movie terms, that’s called “Ye Olde Wild West” – where sagebrush always drifts in the roads and everything is dusty but the no one ever looks dirty enough.   Craig is the “stranger”, Jake Lonergan (Foreshadowing Alert:  “Loner” is in his last name!),who wanders into the town of Absolution (because all Ye Olde Wild West towns must have a name that proves exactly how happy its citizens are to call it home) with no memory of his past or his goals for the future.  All he has is a mysterious piece of shabby chic jewelry on his arm that doesn’t exactly fit the time period’s penchant for minimalism.

The town of Absolution has a sheriff (Keith Carradine), but is essentially run by cattleman Colonel Dolarhyde (Ford); both men are charged with informing Lonergan that he is in fact a wanted criminal.  Before this has a chance to turn into your average Ye Olde Wild West shootout, however, more powerful and pressing events occur.  The aliens of the title show up and blast their way down the town’s one and only street wide enough to impressively showcase the flying spacecraft’s destructive power.  It is then that Lonergan’s hip fashion statement cuff comes into play:  it is a weapon that harnesses the same type of energy that fuels the aliens’ arsenal.    This scene was the focus of much of the previews.

That's right...we're tough guys.

Basically, we have a Western interrupted in both mood and purpose by an alien attack film.  The cliches and conventions of both still apply in Favreau’s vision, which is tricky to achieve.  The Colonel must remain gruff and stalwart, but alien invasion movie rules require that every misfit within a one hundred mile radius (including Lonergan and Olivia Wilde’s strange but intriguing Ella) must team up to take down the enemy before their way of life goes the way of the dinosaurs.  One doesn’t quite have the heart to tell them that, considering the “charms” of Absolution, perhaps razing the town and starting from scratch isn’t too terrible of an idea.

Who is the mysterious Ella? I STILL have no idea.

Those versed in both Western and Alien movie lore will not be surprised at where the plot goes from here.  All aliens must have a reason for trying to attack and conquer we puny humans.  All Western heroes must have a dramatic showdown and a shady past.

The first twenty minutes of the movie are intriguing and moody.  It’s when our group of misfit anti-heroes must work together to fight the evil aliens that things get muddled.  The aliens are right out of the Independence Day handbook, and their reason for being on Earth in the first place is worse than lame.  There are points during the last 45 minutes when the alien/cowboy elements are themselves overshadowed by confusing and unneccessary forays into the supernatural and race relations.

Since Colonel Dolarhyde has a background in military strategy, the film’s final showdown is more than a bit questionable.  At least they had the sense to bring along the border collie…

What it boils down to is this:  Cowboys and Aliens is entertaining, but it could have been more interesting and innovative.  As a summer movie, it more than meets the basic requirement for popcorn fare.  Will it please everyone?  No.  Those of us who have seen movies this summer that DO go above and beyond to entertain and awe (the moving Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2, the charming Midnight in Paris) will no doubt be disappointed.  Are the effects worth seeing on the big screen?  Not really.  Feel free to wait about three months until you can watch it on your overly-giant flat screen in the relative privacy of your own living room.  At least then you can snark at it with those you love in peace.

I have no doubt there will be a sequel if this movie does well.  Be prepared for something along the lines of Cowboys and…More Aliens as a title.

Overall Grade: C

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